Skip to main content

What can go wrong in Lima? On getting the conceptualization of fairness right

Idil Boran
From Lima, Peru

As this update was being composed last night, the negotiations had been proceeding intensely throughout Friday, December 12, 2014. The ADP Co-Chairs and COP Presidency worked through Friday night. They proposed a new draft text at about 2:30 am, and convened the contact group at 3 am. The negotiation meeting reconvened this morning, Saturday December 13, at 10 am.

It may be worth giving some context to understand where the negotiations are at this Saturday morning. In a nutshell, the talks went quite badly since Thursday, to say the least. Late Thursday night, the ADP Co-Chairs decided to work on a new proposed ADP draft text. Mainly, the text had gotten overly
 bloated by Thursday night. It contained an unworkable number of options for multiple paragraphs, giving rise to a whopping 50-page document. The bloated nature of the draft text was making it prone to interminable disputes between parties, bickering over options, and hairsplitting. To overcome these problems and to facilitate more productive a negotiation process on the official final day of the COP (Friday Dec. 12), the ADP Co-Chairs worked
through the late hours of Thursday evening and proposed a streamlined text. Negotiations throughout Friday proved that a second round of revisions might be needed. To facilitate timely completion of the negotiations, and a meaningful outcome, the Co-Chairs and the presidency worked through the night and came up with a new proposed text, to be negotiated on Saturday on extended time.

There are various points over which deep disagreements arise. But one that is worth bringing up here is the contention over the difference between 'fairness' and
'equity' in the language of the draft text.

Those who, like myself, come from the world of professional philosophy, recognize that 'fairness' and 'equity' are, at the end of the day, somewhat coextensive concepts. On an appropriate construal, and with adequate specification, they could be used alternatingly. For example, if a discussion became too stuffy and confusing over claims about equity, we – philosophers – would be willing to start over, reformulating and clarifying the issues by referring to 'fairness', instead, if it makes it clearer. Most of us would feel comfortable with this move because we are cognizant that, regardless of whether one uses 'fairness' or 'equity', the concept as such does not have a fully formed and prepackaged content, as if it were an immutable “thing” that that one would have to either accept or reject wholesale. Rather, the concept would need to be defined and worked out in the first place. Its scope, limits, and content would have to be specified carefully. So, the task is not that of choosing between prepackaged concepts, but rather about doing a decent job of specifying the concept, and then working with it. This is, after all, what we mean – typically – when we talk about developing a “normative framework”.

So, why then is the distinction between fairness and equity so inflammatory at the negotiations over the global climate effort?

It is because representatives of the negotiating block, known as G-77+China,
 insist on including an "equity" language in the draft text. The negotiating block regards 'equity', implicitly and explicitly, as having a fixed and immutable content. On this view, equity is inherently associated with Common but Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR). G77+China is highly invested in the idea of securing a system of differentiated responsibilities through the negotiation process. The concept of equity serves as vehicle for this notion, as far as G77+China is concerned, at the negotiations in Lima.

The problem is that the 
whole point of the newly negotiated agreement leading up to Paris 2015 is to move away 
from CBDR, and to have a more flexible and inclusive system of international
cooperation. This is what the INDCs have been developed for. But G-77+China just doesn't want to
let go of the CBDR. G77+China regards CBDR as a necessary component of international cooperation that satisfies the requirements of justice. They regard the use of “fairness” in the language of the draft as watering down of ideals of justice. This is a very unfortunate situation, and could potentially jeopardize the entire process.

Ultimately, there 
are many ways in which, within an agreement, fair terms of cooperation can be established. Not only different normative frameworks are possible, but they also vary in their appropriateness. And so, the question is to find the most appropriate normative framework for the architecture of a global climate regime that is effective, durable, and just. To insist on CBDR to be negotiated and imposed by a treaty top down, as the only option for a fair climate agreement, is to work with a overly narrow and rigid concept of fairness (or equity for that matter.) In fact, with imagination, ingenuity, and good will, it may be possible to structure the architecture of a new agreement on something other than CBDR, and advance the interests of developing countries to a far greater measure than through a rigid adherence to CBDR.

The real danger is to try to integrate “differentiated responsibilities” into a system of INDCs. Putting these two together creates much confusion. It would make the end result of the newly negotiated agreement incoherent, making four years of hard work done under the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action largely redundant. In other words, imbuing INDCs with “differentiated responsibilities” would defeat the purpose of going through the burden of negotiating a new international agreement. If
 the U.S. and the EU together show leadership, the problems may be resolved, but it's easier said than done.

Let’s hope a 
deadlock can be averted this weekend.

Stay tuned for further updates.

UN Climate negotiations in Lima, Peru

Idil Boran
from Lima, Peru


The 20th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 20) at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has convened on Monday, December 1, 2014, in Lima, Peru.

COP 20 is of critical importance as the international community is currently working on a new climate agreement. As noted in previous updates from Warsaw in November in 2013, and from Bonn in June 2014, the negotiations are being conducted within a specific timetable known as the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action. This phase is expected to come to a close at COP 21 in Paris next December. Put another way, COP 20 in Lima is the penultimate annual meeting of the parties before Paris. For this reason, it is considered to be an important step. It is the meeting that will set the tone for the future of the global climate regime. To be more precise, it is in Lima that the text of the new agreement is to be fully drafted.

In this opening update from Lima, my focus will be on some general reflections on the multilateral process on climate change. The updates from Lima will be thematically organized and, altogether, they will catalogue some of the main issues arising from Lima, while assessing their merits and shortcomings. My goal, today, is to reflect on the multilateral process in general, in an effort to carve out an appropriate framework for understanding the progression of political decision-making. In short, what exactly should we expect from the negotiations?

First, the pace of the meetings during the two-week conference is, inevitably, going to be slow. At times, the discussions become highly technical and give the appearance of being focused merely on minutia. The reality is that every detail has to be taken into account and negotiated. For this reason, the multilateral process is bound to frustrate those who look for quick fixes, easy answers, and grand solutions. But those who are familiar with the intricacies of collective decision-making understand that it is not reasonable to expect policy to simply pop-up into existence. They need to be carefully thought through, taking into account the diversity of positions and standings. This is no different for a global climate regime.

Second, what is being negotiated is unambiguously multifaceted. The agreement that is currently being negotiated includes both mitigation and adaptation components. These form the two pillars of negotiations. This structure distinguishes itself significantly from the previous era of climate agreements, which was focused solely on mitigation. Today, there is an understanding that mitigation and adaptation strategies must work in tandem. Any agreement on a specific issue – such as an agreement on finance, or transfer of technology, or loss and damage – has to be consistent with all the aspects of the overall agreement under the Convention. Given the deep differences between negotiating blocks, it is expected that the discussions will be highly focused, as opposed to being diffused and broad. Moreover, the language of the text is of great importance. Each word, or turn of phrase, needs be selected carefully to accurately reflect the nuances of what is agreed upon.

Third, the decisions to be made in the current phase set the tone for the next stage ahead. What this means is that the various aspects of the agreement are open to be reconsidered and reworked in the future in light of new information, as well as lessons learned. The goal of the multilateral process, overall, is to set the building blocks of an effective and durable agreement, which also satisfies the requirements of fairness. What is important, then, is to reach the goals that are set for a given phase, and then move on to the next steps. Critics often disregard this feature of negotiations. They often assume that if a solution is not found and implemented at once, then the process is failing. Unfortunately, this assumption provides poor guidance. It frames the thinking within a highly restrictive box.

Indeed, many are inclined to think that the focus on details, the technicality and tenuousness of the discussions are an indication of dysfunction. Some go as far as saying that not much gets done at the UN climate talks, and that the whole enterprise is futile. They are too precipitate in this judgment. Treaties and global agreements develop overtime and refine themselves through a process of rethinking and reconsideration. It is for this reason that the formal multilateral platform is of great importance. The formal platform provides an institutional architecture that sets, systematically and transparently, the conditions and methods for collective public deliberation and decision-making to take place.

Like the workings of science, international negotiations on climate change within the Convention constitute an ongoing, self-correcting, and formal process, with a well-defined and stringent method. Looked at superficially and from a given time slice, it may look like little or no progress is made. Taken as a whole, it becomes clear that the overall effort moves forward, provided that the institutional structure within which it takes place is strong, transparent, and just.

Stay tuned for further updates on the progression of the negotiations at COP 20.

Idil Boran, Associate Professor
Department of Philosophy, York University.
Send inquiries to:

Climate talks underway at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Bonn, Germany, June 4-15, 2014

Idil Boran,
from Bonn, Germany

The United Nations Climate Change Conference has convened in Bonn, Germany, on June 4 and is scheduled to go on until June 15, 2014. The Bonn conference is an “intersessional” meeting of the negotiating parties. These are sessions that are held between the Conference of the Parties (COPs), typically held at the end of each year. The present meeting in Bonn houses the 40th sessions of the Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SB 40) and of the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA 40) respectively. It also houses the resumed session of the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP).

The Bonn meeting is considered to be an important one as advancements made in this two-week period are expected to set the tone for the 20th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 20) in Lima, December 2014. COP 20 in Lima is on the spotlight. This is because the text of a new legally binding international agreement on climate change, to come into force in 2020, is to be fully drafted in Lima, and then put on the table for agreement in Paris in 2015.

Two highly positive developments marked the opening of the Bonn conference.

1. On June 3, the day before the conference convened, the President of the United States, Barack Obama announced a proposed plan to make 30% reduction in carbon dioxide in the U.S. power sector by 2030 from 2005 levels through EPA regulation.

2. China announced that it is working on a cap on its greenhouse gas emissions. This constitutes a historic first and opens up new opportunities for possible cooperation between major emitters on setting significant targets.

In short, the Bonn meeting is taking place in a relatively positive atmosphere, with an express desire to get as much work done as possible in the wake of COP 20 in Lima. As for the specific issues, the Bonn conference’s special focus targets raising ambition on land use and areas of urbanization. Additionally, ongoing conversations on adaptation, the Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage, new approaches to climate financing, the idea of a new market mechanism to be adopted within the new agreement, and how to achieve a balance between market and non-market mechanisms to curb emissions figure among the central issues.

Needless to say, questions continue to arise on equity. How should equity be understood within the parameters of a new agreement? How to conceptualize the distribution of responsibilities? What is the most appropriate formulation of responsibility within a universal agreement? Should the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities be revised or preserved in the current round of negotiations? How to determine each party’s contribution within the new agreement? These are not simple questions and do not have straightforward answers. But they give depth to the multilateral negotiations on climate change.

Stay tuned for updates as the second week of the conference unfolds.

Lessons from the UN climate talks in Warsaw: Understanding the road ahead

Idil Boran,
York University

The negotiations at the annual meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), held in Warsaw November 11-22, 2013, were tumultuous. Delegates, exasperated by persistent disagreements over key issues, worked into the night of November 22 and throughout the day on Saturday November 23 to secure a reasonable agreement. In the end, Warsaw 2013 ended more constructively than expected.

Warsaw was an important step on the road to the meeting in Paris in 2015, where the international community is expected to adopt a new treaty on climate change. One important achievement coming out of Warsaw is that the international negotiations remained alive, with specific goals to meet, on the way to Paris.

The stop between Warsaw and Paris is Lima, Peru, where the 20th meeting of the Conference of Parties will take place in December of 2014. The role Lima can play is critical in many respects. Most importantly, what is to be agreed upon in Paris will need to be prepared - with its final draft being fully worked out – in Lima.

If it is well structured and intelligently run, the meeting in Lima 2014 presents great potential. But what precisely should be expected from Lima? To some extent, the answer to this question requires understanding what has and hasn’t been achieved in Warsaw.

First, Warsaw offered no magic all-encompassing formula. But this kind of easy result should not be expected in the first place. What is needed is an ongoing, structured, transparent, and inclusive conversation, for which the UNFCCC serves as platform, in order to work through the multiplicity of issues and conflicting interests between nations. In other words, the problems associated with climate change (both on the mitigation and adaptation pillars) cannot be solved in one sitting, but will probably require many COPs. In this process, Warsaw will go on record for two important agreements:

1. An agreement over a mechanism for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.
2. The Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage Associated with Climate Change Impacts.

The issue of loss and damage dominated the debates in Warsaw and turned out to be, as expected, extremely divisive.

Some parties insist on pursuing the discussion under a new third pillar, in addition to the traditional pillars of mitigation and adaptation at the UNFCCC. It is because of this demand that this already sensitive issue became ever so contentious.

There were deep disagreements over whether a third pillar, dedicated exclusively to loss and damage as a separate issue from adaptation, is necessary. From a pragmatic perspective, a third pillar may cause an unnecessary proliferation of negotiation pillars at the COP meetings. From a normative equity perspective, it may confuse many negotiating parties into thinking about a loss and damage clause strictly as a “historical accountability” clause, preventing them from finding productive pathways for an equitable agreement. Next year’s meeting in Lima must set the normative, equity-based, framework on the international mechanism on loss and damage very carefully, so it can make progress on the issue.

Finally, what prevented the negotiations from being completely deadlocked in Warsaw was an emphasis on countries’ “contributions” to climate change policies, including mitigation, instead of the usual emphasis on “commitments”. To pessimists, this may appear to be no more than quibbling over words. But we must remember that how an issue is framed has significant influence on the results. So, if it turns out that the idea of making a “contribution” to efforts to address climate change resonates in the minds of negotiating parties as something they can all agree to, then it may well set the international community on a track toward a new generation of climate treaty come 2015.

Idil Boran, Associate Professor and Director of the Certificate Program in Practical Ethics, Department of Philosophy, York University. Professor Boran attended COP 19 in Warsaw as a York University observer delegate.
Send inquiries to:

Breakthrough agreement reached in Warsaw on reduction of emissions from deforestation and forest degradation

Idil Boran
From Warsaw, Poland

As these lines are being written at about 11:00 am on Saturday, November 23 in Warsaw, the morning after the official end of the Conference of the Parties (COP) 19, the talks are still going on at the National Stadium. A debate between parties, which is being webcast, pertaining to finance as well as loss & damage at the President’s Stocktaking Plenary is taking place. What these discussions suggest is that divergences on the issues of finance and loss & damage prevail, causing an extension of the talks into Saturday.

However, the tensions over these two issues should not overshadow a breakthrough agreement that has been reached here in Warsaw last night. The decision secures significant emissions reductions from deforestation. Known as REDD-plus, Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, plus Pro-forest Activities is a framework on which government representatives have been working since 2005.

The decision is an important step forward at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, for about a fifth of global emissions are known to be due to deforestation and forest degradation. No less significantly, the decision establishes well-defined features into the architecture of international regulations, promoting transparency, integrity, and efficiency:

1. The agreement structurally connects REDD-plus to the Green Climate Fund, and secures the financing of forest-related projects in developing countries.
2. The procedure for allocating funds is “result-based”. That is, countries will have to show tangible reduction of deforestation and forest degradation in a way that does not harm local communities, in order to qualify for funds and to receive payments.
3. The agreement establishes a set of rules for forest-related projects. In so doing, it serves a catalyzing function for achieving global standards in the treatment of forests.

Each COP is associated with advancement on a specific issue. The agreement on reduction of emissions from deforestation and forest degradation is probably what will be associated with Warsaw.

This breakthrough is not only good news but it also shows that even in highly contentious and politically charged situations positive outcomes can be achieved.

For inquiries, contact:

Highly charged questions on equity at the centre of the international climate negotiations in Warsaw

Idil Boran
From Warsaw, Poland

As this year’s climate talks in Warsaw are in their final stretch, the debates have become deeply divided. Two questions are at the centre of these morally charged debates:

(a) the need for developing countries vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change to have access to funds that will allow them to meet the costs of a changing environment.

(b) the question of whether industrialized countries should pay compensation to developing countries affected by adverse effects of climate change.

The debates in Warsaw are at a point of being deadlocked. Although there are many factors causing the seemingly intractable tension, one of them is the way these two questions are being lumped together in a two-in-one package. What purportedly brings these two questions together, in the minds of many negotiating parties, is a conception of equity. To many, and most notably to the representatives of what is called G-77 (the group of developing countries including the least developed small countries), the mechanism that is to support the costs of climate disasters is viewed as a venue to ensure that the west compensate developing countries that are in a precarious position due to the effects of climate change.

Yet, as it was mentioned in one of the consultation meetings here in Warsaw, various criteria exist to provide guidance to achieve a reasonable system of cooperation. In other words, a historical accountability outlook is not the only outlook for conceptualizing equity.

Needless to say, an exclusive focus on historical accountability puts on the table an excessively narrow reading of what an equitable allocation of costs may require. It looks like more work needs to be done to facilitate agreement over an acceptable criterion of equity. Paradoxically, as debates becomes emotionally charged, the likelihood of finding a way out of the conundrum of adversity becomes less likely.

The rationale behind the Durban Platform was to move away from a fundamental differentiation and adversarial positioning between developed and developing countries. The meeting in Warsaw, thus far, seems to have had the opposite effect, unless something pleasantly surprising comes out of this evening's deliberations.

Send inquiries to:

COP 19 in Warsaw is transitioning into its second week

Idil Boran
From Warsaw, Poland

This year, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is holding the 19th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 19) in Warsaw, Poland’s capital, through November 11-22, 2013.

As the conference is transitioning toward its second week, there is mounting tension on a number of issues, two of which are worth noting here.

The focus on historical emissions:
Last week, Brazil initiated a proposal to use historical emissions levels going back to mid-nineteenth century, in order to determine how much countries should be allowed to emit in the future as part of a new treaty. This proposal has been vehemently rejected both by the United States and the European Union. The proposed framework is not only proving to be highly divisive, it also brings back a principle of corrective justice as a guiding principle for negotiating the terms of cooperation on climate change. This principle uses a retrospective logic to establish fair terms of cooperation, looking back at past actions to determine who has done harm and then allocates responsibility for the future in light of this information. Those who reject this proposal, such as the U.S. and the E.U., insist that they are willing to guided by a principle of equity, but not one that consists of placing blame through retrospective moral intuitions. They seek, instead, forward-looking alternatives for setting the terms of cooperation.

Loss and damage:
The devastation of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines created a highly emotional negotiation environment on the first week of the climate conference. The negotiations are now heavily focused on loss and damage. Recall that an agreement in principle was reached in Doha at COP 18 for addressing loss and damage. The details are yet to be worked out. This year, many developing countries insist that developed countries pay compensation whenever a developing country is experiencing a weather-related disaster. But this too is proving to be emotionally charged, politically driven, and intractably divisive. Although weather extremes are to be expected in a world affected by climatic change, associating a single event with climate change with any accuracy is not yet possible. Again, as long as the logic is that of looking at past actions and making liability claims, the negotiations are running the risk of exacerbating adversity rather than facilitating agreement.

What these two issues share in common is that both proposals follow a retrospective logic for establishing equitable terms for allocating the costs of climate change within a possible treaty. They also frame the issues in a notoriously polarizing way. What the second week will bring is yet to be discovered.

Stay tuned.

Idil Boran, Associate Professor and Director of the Certificate Program in Practical Ethics, Department of Philosophy, Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies, York University. Direct inquiries to:

York delegation departs for the annual climate change conference

Idil Boran, Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy, will be heading to Warsaw, Poland to attend the 19th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 19) at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) as an observer delegate from York University.

The York University delegation for the UNFCCC has been coordinated by IRIS since 2009.

cop19logoProfessor Boran is attending the UNFCCC for a consecutive year after having attended the previous meeting in Doha, Qatar in December 2012. As part of her work on integrating problems of decision-making into a conception of an ethics of climate change policy, Professor Boran is planning to follow the negotiations as they unfold.

“This is a great opportunity to follow up on specific themes that were front and centre during negotiations between Parties as well as in official side-events at COP 18 in Doha”, says Boran.  “As the international community is moving toward 2015, where a new agreement on the architecture of cooperation on climate change is to be reached, any progress achieved in Warsaw will be highly significant.”

In Warsaw 2013, Professor Boran will pay special attention to the following themes as part of the post-Durban negotiations toward 2015:

  • The role of new financial mechanisms for effective mitigations programs
  •  Steps toward an international cooperation to address loss and damage due to the effects of climate change in developing countries
  • Empowering women for climate change resilience in developing countries

Idil Boran’s research is supported by the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies (LA&PS); the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), and the Institute for Research and Innovation on Sustainability (IRIS).

For further information on Warsaw 2013, contact

Anyone interested in attending next year should watch the UNFCCC website and contact IRIS at