Tag Archives: climate change

Fairness in the Eyes of Parties to the Paris Agreement. What Explains Divergences?

By Håkon Sælen (CICERO) and Vegard Tørstad (EUI, Florence) 

The question of how to differentiate efforts fairly has always been central and controversial in UN climate negotiations. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Kyoto Protocol, and the Paris Agreement include different formulations and compromises relating to the distribution of efforts between parties.

In a new study published in Climate Policy, we show how disagreement over fairness principles prevailed in the discussions leading up to the Paris Agreement, and suggest an explanation for why the parties have been unable to reach consensus on the question of fairness.

Broadly, three different understandings of how mitigation burdens should be distributed fairly have been frequently invoked in debates in the climate negotiations:

  1. i. The principle of Responsibility demands that climate change should be solved by those who have caused it. In other words: the polluters must pay.
  2. ii. The Capability principle emphasises that all those who have the capacity to mitigate climate change have an imperative to do so.
  3. iii. The Rights (needs) principle suggests that an actor is either entitled by right to emit a given amount of greenhouse gases, or that it needs to be exempted from undertaking provisions.

There has been considerable disagreement among parties in the negotiations on how to interpret and weight these principles in discussions of burden sharing. In our research, we were interested in two questions:

  1. Which parties support each of the three fairness principles?
  2. What explains variation in fairness conceptions across countries?

To answer the first question, we used content analysis to count the frequency with which the principles appear in parties’ negotiation documents over a three-year period in the negotiations leading up to Paris. We found that fairness conceptions among key actors in the negotiations are polarised. On one extreme of the fairness spectrum are Australia, Canada, the United States, and Russia, who all refer to Capability in more than 75% of their fairness references. On the other are Brazil, China, India, Saudi Arabia, and certain Latin American countries, who devote the majority of their references to Responsibility.

This polarization of fairness conceptions is bad news for the climate negotiations, because agreements that are based on a common notion of fairness are largely thought to be more effective and durable than those that are not. It is analytically interesting, therefore, to understand what explains these large differences in parties’ fairness conceptions.

The literature often suggests that fairness conceptions in negotiations are determined by parties’ self-interest. However, our regression analysis of more than 160 parties in the climate negotiations showed that several factors often regarded as important to parties’ interests – such as historical emissions and capacity to pay – are not the primary determinants of fairness conceptions in these negotiations. Instead, whether a country is listed in ‘Annex I’ of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change–—that is, whether it is classified as a ‘developed’ country—is the single strongest predictor.

While the dominance of this variable may seem somewhat surprising, it is nevertheless compatible with an interest-based perspective. The binary Annex-division between ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries was the basis for differentiating obligations under the UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol. Only ‘developed’ were assigned individual obligations to reduce emissions under the Kyoto Protocol. Therefore, countries classified as ‘developing’–—such as China and India–—benefit from the Annex scheme’s continuation, while ‘developed’ countries–—such as Australia, Russia and the United States–—from its removal.

In this light, it is notable that the Paris Agreement omits any reference to Annex I of the UNFCCC, using instead less clearly defined terms such as ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ or ‘other’ countries. The lack of strict differentiation in the Paris Agreement suggests, firstly, that the Agreement is more favourable than previous agreements towards ‘developed’ countries, such as the United States, and less so towards rising economies such as China and India, which were previously classified as ‘developing’. It is therefore paradoxical that the United States is the only country that has decided to pull out, citing the unfairness of the Agreement as a reason.

Secondly, the lack of reference to the Annex is significant because it affects the fundamental tension over effort-sharing in the negotiations. By removing the Annexes, the dominant variable in explaining past divergences in fairness conceptions has been rendered less relevant. This development may improve parties’ chances for reaching compromise and agreement. However, ongoing negotiations on implementation of the Agreement have already encountered ‘roadblocks’ that partially derive from how the Agreement resolved the issue of differentiation between ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries. It therefore appears that negotiators will have to continue to deal with this issue, even though it may take on a new dynamic now that the Annex I division has less force. In doing so, our paper suggests that looking for pragmatic solutions tailored to each substantive agenda point will be more fruitful than discussions at the level of fairness principles aiming for one overarching solution.

The question of fairness in effort-sharing will continue to be relevant also in the future cycle established by the agreement. Parties are obliged to submit nationally determined contributions (NDCs) every five years and are requested to justify their own contribution as ‘fair and ambitious’ – a process sometimes termed ‘self-differentiation’. What is more, a ‘global stocktake’ will assess collective progress every five years, ‘in light of equity’, and shall inform future NDCs. To achieve meaningful self-differentiation, the stocktake (as well as informal assessments by civil society) might be linked to parties’ own fairness conceptions as presented in their negotiation documents, such as NDCs and submissions. For this purpose, stakeholders may find overviews of fairness conceptions – like presented in our new paper – of use.

About the Authors


Håkon Sælen is a Senior Researcher at the Center for International Climate Research (CICERO).



Vegard Tørstad is a PhD Researcher at the Department of Political and Social Sciences, European University Institute (EUI)