What’s Fair when it Comes to Environmental Protection?


News from Climate Science: Once a month, climate researchers report on their latest findings in the newspaper "Hamburger Abendblatt." Andreas Schmidt focuses on different principles of fairness in social debates.

By now nearly everyone agrees: In order to keep climate change in check, we have to cut back on harmful emissions. But who should do more, and who less? Up-and-coming newly industrialized countries want to increase their gross national product, which will also mean more emissions – and feel that industrialized Western countries are the ones who should pay the bill. The latter in turn don’t feel they should have to bear all the weight and responsibility alone, making it hard to find middle ground.

As social debates certainly influence politics and policymaking, I’m currently investigating the different standpoints by means of media analysis. In the late 1980s for example there was a “hot phase” in the history of environmental policy. With environmental issues high on political agendas around the globe, many people used the public debates to exert pressure for change. One result was the 1992 “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro, after which an initial framework agreement was created.

Between 2006 and 2010 public interest rose once again in connection with international efforts to draft a new protocol to succeed the expiring Kyoto Protocol from 1997. Yet this time, despite considerable public pressure, the result was ultimately a failure. Why were the countries involved unable to agree on common goals?

For my analysis, I have focused on the examples of Germany, India and the USA. I sorted through more than 1,900 press articles from the years 2007 to 2010, identifying the different political standpoints. In addition, I reviewed the press releases, statement papers and newsletters from environmental protection groups, religious organizations, unions and commercial associations.

What they boil down to: The vast majority of parties involved are in favor of political measures to stop or slow climate change. Yet there are very different opinions, not only between countries but also between the different interest groups in each country, on what a “fair” approach should look like.

If we oriented ourselves on the so-called “grandfathering principle,” then all countries would have to reduce their emissions by the same amount. For example, under the Kyoto Protocol the EU and USA had agreed to cut their CO2 emissions by roughly eight percent. Yet this ignored the fact that at the time the USA was already producing above-average pro capita emissions – and that the suggested reductions wouldn’t make any difference to that in the short term.

If we instead followed the “equality principle,” then all countries would have the right to develop up to a certain industrial standard. This would mean that some countries would be allowed to generate significantly more greenhouse gases in the future, while the most developed countries would need to implement drastic reductions. Lastly, the “responsibility principle” focuses on the question of who emitted the most in the past and should therefore pay more now.

Within the respective countries, various groups have translated these principles into concrete demands: Whereas many in India feel that the historical responsibility lies with the industrialized nations, small but financially powerful groups in the USA still completely deny that climate change is a reality. The German business sector is in favor of setting a fair price for CO2 emissions, but wants no other political involvement in the market. In contrast, labor unions in all three countries are thinking along the same lines, greatly favoring the equality principle. As such, though environmentally aware, the public remains divided – surely one of the main reasons why there has still been no binding agreement to date.