Greenhouse Development Rights

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Tom Athanasiou and Paul Baer on development rights:

“The Greenhouse Development Rights framework is designed to support an emergency climate stabilization program while, at the same time, preserving the right of all people to reach a dignified level of sustainable human development free of the privations of poverty,” (


By Mohammed Sofiane Mesbahi:

"In the highly regarded Greenhouse Development Rights (GDRs) framework, for example, the right to sustainable development is codified by way of a ‘development threshold’, meaning a level of income per capita that should not be accounted for in calculations about a country’s capacity to tackle climate change. In other words, a country’s capacity can be defined as the sum of all individual incomes, excluding incomes below the development threshold, which should be higher than the official global poverty line so that it can reasonably apply to all citizens of both the North and South, and somewhat reflect an adequate standard of living. The persuasive reasoning is that people below this level of income, those who have yet to realise their right to development, should not have to bear the burden of a climate transition.

To further account for the inequitable historical emissions between the North and South, the GDRs framework also proposes the use of equity indicators to calculate each nation’s responsibility, as well as its aggregate capacity. For example, historical responsibility is calculated by the cumulative per capita greenhouse gas emissions of each country since an agreed start date, such as 1850 or 1990, which is adjusted to account for the development threshold. In this way, a country’s fair share of the global mitigation effort can be defined by combining its responsibility and capacity, thus generating a single indicator of obligation. The real dynamic potential of such an index of course depends on first defining the remaining carbon budget, for which a 1.5°C marker pathway should clearly be the basis of negotiations.

My brief explanation here of the GDRs methodology is rather cursory and incomplete, and I would recommend referring to their literature to better understand how the use of equity indicators can provide a quantifiable, fair system for sharing the global effort among all countries. But I think their key achievement is to demonstrate how a major commitment to North-South cooperation is essential for any viable climate change mitigation framework. The Annex I countries have such a comparatively larger share of global responsibility and capacity that they cannot possibly meet their fair share of effort through domestic action alone. Thus they are duly obligated to provide less developed countries with the finance, access to technology and capacity building that is necessary for them to exploit their full mitigation potential, in line with their sustainable development strategies.

In the latest iteration of such an equity-based framework prior to COP21, a civil society review of the INDCs was able to illustrate just how far the pledged actions of wealthier countries compare to their respective fair shares of effort, central to which is the need for vastly scaled-up means of implementation. The INDCs of the US and EU, for example, only represent about a fifth of their fair shares. But it should be emphasised that even these estimates are conservative and pragmatic, based as they are on a 2°C global mitigation pathway and with reference to the wholly inadequate INDCs, leading civil society organisations to recommend a ‘ratcheting-up mechanism’ that can enable deeper, and possibly legally-binding commitments to be made in the future.

Then again, we cannot expect developing countries to accept a binding mitigation framework unless the principles of sharing and equity are at its heart. It must be seen that poverty eradication and human development can go hand in hand with a Marshall-style transition to a zero-carbon energy supply, as informed by the scientific reality. There is no way around the impasse: Northern countries will need to take a greater share of the burden at first, and face up to their obligations for massive international transfers of technological and financial support to poorer countries in the South. What we are talking about, really, is a new vision of international cooperation that is somewhat akin to the Brandt Report of 1980.[1] It is high time that report was updated to reflect the reality of a world that is fast exceeding ecological boundaries, in which a global reallocation of resources is needed to address both the climate and poverty crises simultaneously." (