23/04/2021 – Environment / Climate Change / Action / Analysis / Assessments / Nature

Analysis: Bias found in prominent ‘fair share’ assessments of global climate action

Many assessments favour wealthier, higher-emitting countries, and lack transparency, according to a new perspective piece in Nature Climate Change. Within many of the indicators used, “there's still a systematic bias in favour of the biggest historical polluters”, claims one of the authors.

In a new analysis, leading climate social scientists argue that influential studies that attempt to quantify different countries’ “fair share” of climate action have put forward a biased and oversimplified view of what is primarily a political and ethical discussion.

The Perspective piece – ‘Ethical choices behind quantifications of fair contributions under the Paris Agreement’, published in Nature Climate Change – comes as UN climate negotiators are expected to release new national plans for climate action ahead of climate negotiations this year in Glasgow, Scotland, and defend them as “fair and ambitious”.

Small, biased subsets that favour wealthier countries

The piece evaluates a selection of recent effort-sharing studies to determine whether they are explicit about the ethical choices underlying their analysis or not. Reviewing 16 studies that quantify equitable effort sharing between countries under the Paris Agreement, the authors find that nearly two thirds (ten studies) present themselves as neutral or value-free, despite being limited to a small and biased subset of ethical perspectives on effort-sharing that tend to favour wealthier countries.


“Studies that incorrectly purport to be neutral and objective are not just misleading, they can even be harmful. In this case, they can set unrealistic expectations about what countries might be expected to contribute to a global climate effort. Even if it’s not intentional, one can imagine the problems caused by a body of literature with a consistent bias toward wealthier and against poorer countries,” said Sivan Kartha, Senior Scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute.


In particular, ‘grandfathering’ of emissions, where countries argue their status as high emitters is a justification for continued high emissions, should not be included in equity assessments of global climate action. This is a key source of the systematic bias in favour of wealthier, higher-emitting countries.

Other studies claim objectivity by averaging a spectrum of equity approaches, commonly choosing a subset that exclude important ethical concepts. For instance, when many analyses quantify a country's capacity to allocate resources to a global climate effort, they routinely treat a dollar earned by a poor citizen as wholly equivalent to a dollar earned by a rich citizen.


One prominent assessment, the ‘Climate Action Tracker’ (CAT), generates a ‘Fair Share’ range of emissions allowances for each country that is widely used by media, academia, civil society and governments to assess countries’ mitigation ambition. The CAT method excludes a large number of studies for being statistical “outliers”, excluding whole categories of ethical positions.

Towards greater transparency 

“Indicators that rank nations on their effort, like the influential Climate Action Tracker with its green, yellow and red symbols and ‘inadequate’ type labels, actually hide some of these grandfathering indicators deep in their engine rooms. They say they're about equity, but there's still a systematic bias in favour of the biggest historical polluters. As we review efforts in the ‘global stocktake’ of the Paris Agreement, these kinds of indicators must be transparent.  Otherwise, they are anti-equity,” said Timmons Roberts, Professor of Environmental Studies and Sociology at Brown University and Director of the Climate Social Science Network.

“Studies should be explicit about the ethical and moral implications of their underlying assumptions, and equity assessments of countries’ climate action must be based on ethically defensible principles, such as responsibility, capacity and need,” said Dr Kate Dooley, Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne and lead author of the study.


The authors propose new guidelines that emphasise transparency in communicating the ethical underpinnings of assessments of climate action and suggest guidelines for developing policy-relevant – but not ethically neutral – equity research: 

• Studies of equitable distribution of climate efforts should not claim value-neutrality

• Analysis needs to ensure that the losses of those who are potentially marginalised remain clearly visible

• Analytical work should aim to inform rather than supplant the political process. 

The perspective can be accessed here

The authors of the piece include Kate Dooley, University of Melbourne; Christian Holz,, Carleton University, Sivan Kartha, Stockholm Environment Institute;  Sonja Klinsky, Arizona State University; Timmons Roberts,, Brown University; Henry Shue, University of Oxford, Harald Winkler, University of Cape Town Tom Athanasiou, Climate Equity Reference Project; Simon Caney, University of Warwick; Elizabeth Cripps, University of Edinburgh; Navroz K. Dubash, Centre for Policy Research; Galen Hall, Brown University; Paul G. Harris, Education University of Hong Kong; Bård Lahn; CICERO Center for International Climate Research; Darrel Moellendorf, Goethe University and University of Johannesburg; Benito Müller,  University of Oxford; Ambuj Sagar, Indian Institute of Technology; and Peter Singer, Princeton University.

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