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The role of ethics in climate negotiations

Lund University post-doctoral researcher and London School of Economics and Political Science fellow researcher Eric Brandstedt speaks on ethics and its role in climate negotiations.
COP21/CMP11 opening meeting by UNclimatechange Flickr
COP21/CMP11 opening meeting. Photo: UNclimatechange, Flickr.

Eric first explains that one can think about results of COP21 in Paris from many different perspectives. “One is from policy analysis: given what we know about such negotiations and about the history of the COP (short for Conference of the Parties), what are likely outcomes? This is the most relevant point of view for working out expectations here, but it is not the only one,” begins Eric.

Eric Brandstedt

A second perspective is climate science. Eric states “The 2°C target, formally agreed on at COP16 in 2010, is underpinned though not fully settled by science. For instance, by appeal to what has been called ‘a safe operating space for humanity’. Some argue that science, or nature, ‘requires’ a more ambitious climate target, of say 1.5°C.”

The ethical perspective an important complement

Without denying the crucial role science plays in informing environmental goal setting, Eric is cautious of using science to set a political objective and forming expectations in accordance with it. “The acceptance of an objective for climate change abatement is, in this instance, a normative question that cannot be settled merely by consulting descriptive facts (this is clear in IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change) reports, but not always in a more general discussion),” comments Eric. Eric explains that a fair division of responsibility between relevant actors cannot be discovered, but rather must be constructed by carefully scrutinizing considerations for or against various courses of action.

A third perspective of ethics can also be used to form expectations of ethically justified outcomes. “I believe that this ethical perspective is an important complement to the other two, but that it has been misunderstood as setting the rules of the game for policy processes,” states Eric.

A policy background

Analysing COP21 from these perspectives can offer different insights about what to expect from the negotiations. Although Eric is a philosopher with expertise primarily related to the ethical perspective, he will first provide more information about expectations from the policy perspective because it is important background to the ethical analysis.

“I think it is fair to say that the overall expectation on Paris is lower than the expectation before Copenhagen, in 2009. Prior to COP15 in Copenhagen most people expected a legally binding treaty, one similar to the Kyoto-protocol, but more ambitious,” comments Eric. The meeting was widely considered a disappointment by many political analysts. Eric adds, “According to the policy analyst David Victor, the gridlock of Copenhagen and thereafter is the result of beliefs in a series of damaging myths, such as the need to negotiate a top-down legally binding and all-encompassing climate treaty. According to Victor and other policy analysts, we should not expect a protocol similar to that of Kyoto at all, but instead hope for more gradual or piecemeal agreements,” explains Eric.

An alternative approach

“There are signs of an alternative, more bottom-up, approach being developed,” adds Eric. One example is the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) that are a major discussion point in Paris. All parties to the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) have been asked to pledge voluntary emission reductions. “This has, for example, resulted in the EU promising to reduce emissions by 40%, compared to 1990 levels, by 2030. With contributions from over 150 countries, the INDCs are calculated to lead to substantial emission reductions,” says Eric. “If pledged INDCs are respected, the world will be on course for around 3°C of warming, which is much better than business-as-usual, though clearly not enough to meet the widely accepted 2°C target,” adds Eric.

Review mechanisms for the INDCs, which will also be discussed in Paris, will be developed and include an expectation of progressively increasing emission reduction ambitions every fifth year.

The Green Climate Fund

Eric adds that another source of hope is financial assistance from richer to poorer countries to facilitate transition to a decarbonised world economy and to implement adaptation measures.  Rising priority has been given to equitable distribution of funding for climate mitigation efforts, and loss and damage compensation for countries more prone to experience negative climate impacts. “There are some signs that the symbolically important so-called Green Climate Fund is on its way to being filled with real money and not just promises,” comments Eric.

“These are just some examples, and one other thing should be added, which is the slow-coming realisation that there are also other venues for climate policy. Although no other forum has the same legitimacy as the COP-meetings of the UNFCCC, it is important not to put all eggs in one basket,” adds Eric. There are also plenty of efforts from non-state actors, such as businesses, NGOs, and local governments; and there are bilateral agreements, such as the recent one between the US and China.

COP 21 impressions. Photo: UNclimatechange, Flickr
COP 21 impressions. Photo: UNclimatechange, Flickr

Climate ethics as a scientific field

The next question is: What can reasonably be expected from the climate negotiations from an ethical perspective? Eric clarifies that, “The mere fact that a policy is not politically feasible, here and now, does not mean that it is not ethically justified or that it shouldn’t be pushed for.” Eric also highlights the gap between what people say they are willing to do and what they have reasons to do. But that is not to say that the policy perspective just sketched is irrelevant to the ethical analysis.

“Climate ethics needs to consider climate politics closely in order to make a meaningful contribution,” states Eric. “Unfortunately this has not happened to any significant degree yet.” Eric explains that climate ethics has developed as a kind of applied ethics, where normative recommendations are worked out on the basis of existing standard theories (mainly utilitarianism) together with facts about the problem area (facts about the drivers of and potential impacts of climate change).

Eric states “On this predominate approach the policy perspective and the existing gridlocks are not of direct relevance; it aims to present an ideal distribution of responsibility, and it is unfortunate that political processes fall hopelessly short of delivering on that.” According to Eric there is a current need for ethically informed action-guidance within climate politics and philosophers have not fully reacted to these problems, which is why this is a starting point for his research.

Work closely to UNFCCC and COP

“I believe that the most important contribution of the ethical perspective is not wholesale rejections of current venues for discussions,” states Eric, “which tends to be seen as lamentation rather than as constructive critique.” Eric explains, “It is much better to work closely to the relevant practices and relevant agents, such as the UNFCCC and COP, and with their principles and values, such as the idea of common but differentiated responsibility. Climate ethicists could clarify and interpret such normative ideals of the policy process together with other relevant interests of the parties and scientific facts.” The work Eric refers to is not just the descriptive work of a policy analyst or psychologist, and he adds “not everything can be read straight from the surface level of situations.” Eric explains that climate ethicists could contribute careful and skillful analysis of climate politics, which could define relevant distinctions, masked assumptions, and implications of affirmed commitments.

Thinking about the expectations presented from the policy perspective, Eric believes there are several complaints that can be made from an ethical perspective. “I am not convinced that climate ethicists should assume the role of independent ethical experts that introduce recommendations independent of the UNFCCC, but they could facilitate internal ethical scrutiny. The relevant ethical expectations are set in accordance with what makes the COP a legitimate arena for discussing these questions,” concludes Eric.

Text: Jack Fraser

Meet the researchers - Reflections on COP 21

King George Island, Antarctica. UN Photo/Eskinder
King George Island, Antarctica. UN Photo/Eskinder

Read interviews by the Sustainability Forum journalist Jack Fraser, also a master student at iiiee, The Environmental Institute at Lund University.

He has met researchers from Lund University with different expert views on COP21 issues in Paris 2015.

Read all the interviews

Contact information

Eric Brandstedt

E-mail: eric.brandstedt [at]

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