This was a question I was asked recently, and for me, the answer was a no-brainer.
In fact, in my opinion, the greatest challenge we face at COP-15 is the same challenge we have faced ever since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.
Back in '92, equity was written into the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (called the UNFCCC for short. The UN loves them some acronyms.) Article 3 of the UNFCCC states:
The Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. Accordingly, the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof.
This section of the convention was included at the behest of developing nations, who wanted to ensure that some concept of equity was included in the text of the convention. Perhaps the delegates at Rio assumed that they were putting the issue of equity to bed. It's in the convention, we're all agreed, and now we can move on.
Except not so much.
Run a quick news search with the words "India + Equity + Climate Change." You'll find countless articles stressing the need for equity to be central to the debate at Copenhagen. It's clear the equity debate is far from over.
But what does equity mean? What are "common but differentiated responsibilities?" What is the disagreement really about?
Well, it's about how we calculate and allocate greenhouse gas emissions. Southern countries want equity of per capita emissions. Why? Because, per capita, Southern countries emit much less than Northern countries. For example, according to 2006 data, China has surpassed the United States in carbon dioxide emissions. However, their per capita emissions are about a quarter of the US's per capita emissions. And when you take into account historical emissions, the United States is clearly responsible for a much greater proportion of historical emissions than China. (Remember carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for about a century or longer.)
Moreover, as The Centre for Science and Environment, an Indian environmental NGO has pointed out, not all emissions are alike, and that it is important to differentiate between survival emissions and luxury emissions. For example, an Indian farmer's cattle might produce the same amount of emissions as an American soccer mom's SUV. But the cattle are very likely necessary for the Indian farmer to feed his family whereas the SUV is clearly a luxury.
In addition (I told you this was complicated) many scholars are now arguing that calculating emissions produced is wrongheaded. The real question is: where are the emissions consumed? So China may produce more emissions than the United States in part because of China's large manufacturing industry. But if those manufactured goods are then consumed in the States, is it really fair to allocate those emissions to China? (Incidentally, this is why people are completely off base when they argue that they shouldn't change their consumption habits because Americans can reduce their emissions and it won't matter because of what China does. China's emissions are linked to American consumption. )
So now some of you may be reading this and thinking, "Gee, this sounds like a huge clusterf**k, but why should I care? Does it REALLY matter how emissions are allocated anyway?"
First of all, I would argue, that yes, it does matter. But really, you should care because, frankly, we will never achieve a global deal on climate change until we resolve the issue of equity. Until we agree on how to allocate emissions. Until we agree on North to South technology transfer. Until we agree on whether the North should have to fund adaptation efforts in the South. Until we realize that there is no them, only us. So yes, we should rally for a deal at Copenhagen. Participate in the International Day of Climate Action. But we need to rally mindful of what is necessary.