Climate Justice in the UNFCCC

by Reinout Debergh

This article follows up on the previous article “What is climate justice” exploring where these terms appear in the international climate change regime.

Compensatory and distributive justice

By far the most known climate justice concept is ‘common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities’ (CBDR+RC) [1]. This incorporates both the principle of historical responsibility (CBDR) and the principle of capacity (RC) and was established in article 3 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992 and continued to feature in the Kyoto Protocol, the Paris Agreement and several Conference of the Parties (COP) decisions [2, 3]. Its idea is that a country’s fair contribution to climate action is based on its historical emissions and wealth (see link first article). However, while developing countries focused on the responsibilities part, developed countries typically reject strong formulations of the principle of historical responsibility and have focused on the term capabilities instead [2, 4]. 

For example, the draft negotiation text at COP20 in Lima in 2014 explicitly mentions the principle of historical responsibility several times [5]. However, in the final Paris Agreement, the principle of historical responsibility was no longer explicitly mentioned [6].

Differentiation has been most evident in the division between Annex I (developed) and non-Annex I (developing) Parties [2]. Only Annex I countries had obligations under the Kyoto Protocol to reduce emissions. These obligations were based on the principle of grandfathering, which is the view that past emissions increase the right to future emissions [23]. Mitigation obligations were determined as a percentage of their current emissions, resulting in higher emitters receiving more emissions rights than lower emitters. This would have disadvantaged developing nations, but since they were excluded, this was not contested [7]. A subgroup of Annex I, known as Annex II which excludes economies in transition, are required to provide financial resources to developing countries to help them comply with their obligations under the UNFCCC (article 4.3 and 4.4) [2]. However, they have so far failed to provide adequate resources [8]. 

The Paris Agreement did not use such an explicit differentiation and all countries are expected to take action. But developed countries are still expected to be more ambitious, provide more detailed reports and transfer financial resources to developing countries [2]. 

Intergenerational justice

In article 3 of the UNFCCC, it is stated that “The Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind” [3]. In legal terms however, “should” only serves as a recommendation and does not impose a legal obligation on the parties [9]. Similarly, while the preamble refers to a resolution “Protection of global climate for present and future generations of mankind”, resolutions adopted by the General Assembly are not legally binding [10,11]. In the Paris Agreement, the preamble acknowledges that “Parties should, when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on …, … and intergenerational equity. But the word “acknowledges” is legally meaningless [12]. Thus, neither the UNFCCC or the Paris Agreement imposes explicit obligations on countries to ensure intergenerational justice.

Procedural justice

While both the UNFCCC (article 18) and the Paris Agreement (article 25) provide one vote for each party, and the adoption of agreements requires consensus, this does not guarantee procedural justice [2, 3, 6]. While it fulfils the all affected principles, the asymmetry in numbers, technical, language and informational capabilities between developed and developing countries limits the effective participation of poorer developing countries in climate change negotiations [13]. Secondly, developing countries are likely to be disproportionately affected by the negative impacts of climate change as they rely more strongly on climate sensitive sectors like agriculture, forestry and tourism, despite their small contribution to climate change (known as the ‘double inequity’) [14, 15]. They need climate action faster, increasing the power imbalance in climate change negotiations. 

Different values among the parties to the UNFCCC

The decision by Donald Trump to leave the Paris Agreement in 2017, supported by the Republican party, was based on the principle of mutual advantage. Trump claimed that “our government rushed to join international agreements where the United States pays the costs and bears the burdens while other countries get the benefit and pay nothing” [16]. This however is simply not true. Several other countries such as Germany, France, Japan and the UK had confirmed similar or higher amounts (US$ 1-1.5 billion each) at that time. And even some developing countries had contributed [17]. The US, now under Democratic leadership, recently rejoined the Paris Agreement [18].

European countries have tended to focus on need principles. They help developing countries because they are vulnerable and in need rather than due to any historical reasons. For example, now former UK prime minister May called it a “moral imperative” to help vulnerable countries [19]. Italy and Norway also stressed the importance of helping the poor and vulnerable, while Sweden called it a “special responsibility” of developed countries to help those in need [20, 21, 22].

While climate justice is theoretically incorporated into the international climate change regime, developed countries have been slow in turning words into action. Much work is left to be done in order to truly achieve climate justice. 

Reference List:

[1] ‘Climate justice and the international regime: Climate justice and the international regime’, Okereke, C. (2010), Climate justice and the international regime. WIREs Clim Change, 1: 462-474.
[2] ‘International Climate Change Law’, Daniel Bodansky, Jutta Brunnée, Lavanya Rajamani (2017), Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN: 9780191643132.
[3] ‘UNFCCC’, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, United Nations (1992), URL: (last accessed 14 April 2021).
[4] ‘Research Handbook on Climate Governance’, eds: Karin B?ckstrand, Eva Lövbrand, (2015), Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd. ISBN: 9781783470594
[5] ‘FCCC/CP/2014/10/Add.1’, UNFCCC, COP20 (2014): (last accessed 10 May 2021)
[6] Paris Agreement, UNFCCC (2015): (last accessed 10 May 2021)
[7] ‘Justice, Equity and Efficiency in Climate Change: A Developing Country Perspective’ in Fair Weather?, P. R. Shukla (1999), Routledge. ISBN: 9781315071251
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[12] ‘After Paris, the Movement for Climate Justice Has Only Just Begun’, Sonli Kolhatkar, truthdig (2021) URL: (last accessed 10 May 2021)
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[14] ‘How climate change will impact developed and developing countries’, Keith Wade, Marcs Jennings, Schroders (2015) URL: (last accessed 10 May 2021)
[15] ‘Growth and Sustainability: 10 years on from the Stern Review’, presentation by Nick Stern, Simon Dietz, Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment (public lecture, 2017), (last accessed 10 May 2021)
[16] ‘Trump on the Paris Agreement’, Vanessa Schipani (2017), URL: (last accessed 10 May 2021)
[17] ‘Fact check: Trump’s Paris Agreement withdrawal announcement’, Climate Analytics, URL: (last accessed 10 May 2021)
[18] ‘Biden Moves To Have U.S. Rejoin Climate Accord’, Nathan Rott, National Public Radio (2021), URL: (last accessed 10 May 2021)
[19] ‘UK support for Pacific Islands on climate change’, Speech by Mark Field, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (5 September 2018), URL: (last accessed 10 May 2021) 
[20] ‘Norway doubles support to the Green Climate Fund’, Norwegian Government (23 December 2019), URL: (last accessed 10 May 2021) 
[21] ‘Speech by Minister of International Development Cooperation Isabella Lövin Speech at Sustainable Energy for All’s event’, Speech by Isabella Lövin, Ministry for Foreign Affairs (30 September 2015), URL: (last accessed 10 May 2021)
[22] ‘Paris Agreement cannot be renegotiated despite Trump’s claims, says France, Germany and Italy’, Mythili Sampathkumar, The Independent (01 June 2017), URL: (last accessed 10 May 2021) 
[23] ‘What is grandfathering?’, in Environmental Politics 22.3, Carl Knight (04 December 2012), DOI: (last accessed 10 May 2021)
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