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Nov 24, 2014

Exploring Questions of Climate Equity

From displacement of people to extreme drought, the effects of climate change are becoming increasingly severe and widespread. And as economic inequality entrenches and worsens globally, questions of climate-related equity will undoubtedly become among the most pressing of our time. World Resource Institute’s Equity Explorer — an extension of its Climate Data Explorer — attempts to frame ways of thinking about how burdens and responsibilities should be shared among countries within the international climate negotiations taking place over the next year. These conversations have been largely focused on mitigation, and at this point do not officially include a measures of climate finance to support adaptation - an area with perhaps even deeper obligation for equity exploration.

Case Study: Equity Explorer

Scope: International (considers 186 countries)

First Released: October 2014

Intended Audience: Policymakers, governments, analysts, private sector, civil society, 

Potential Application: Inform policymakers in global climate negotiations; provide context for citizens to hold governments accountable; visualize the complexity of global disparities in relation to GHG emissions, world economies, and mitigation.

Developer: World Resources Institute

Website: http://cait2.wri.org/equity/


Next month, many of the world’s leaders will make their way to Lima, Peru. There they will engage in the final set of discussions in the run up toward the next global climate agreement, set to be negotiated in Paris late next year. As countries prepare for each of these conversations, they are also preparing their “intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs),” a part of a global process derived by the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) at COP 19 in Warsaw, Poland. Each country’s INDC will be discussed in Lima and published early next year, hopefully laying the groundwork for a global climate agreement.

Calculating Climate-Mitigation Contributions

Each country’s INDC will outline the steps it will take to mitigate climate change within its borders. Essentially INDCs will describe to what degree each country will shift its resources towards mitigating climate change (reducing greenhouse gas emissions, increasing carbon sequestration, etc.).


Figure 1. Who should be the first to cut emissions? And, by how much? The Climate Equity tool offers ways to respond to this question. Photo credit: Coal plant near Delta, Utah. Flickr // lowjumpingfrog

The trouble is that countries are not equally responsible for emitting greenhouse gases, nor are countries equally vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Many countries face pressure to adapt to the effects of climate change they are already experiencing, including rising sea levels and prolonged droughts. Many of them are still developing and are striving to increase the standard of living of their citizens, providing them basics taken for granted by the industrialized world, including access to electricity.

As governments convene, how then should the responsibilities to mitigate climate change be allocated? To what degree should climate-contributors have more obligation to act? And to what degree should climate-vulnerable countries have fewer expectations? The Equity Explorer attempts to make such political, economic, and ethical complexities visible to the user, facilitating analysis.

Citizen-Driven Calculation

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Figure 2. The tool allows users to choose up to eight indicators to compare across up to four countries.

The Equity Explorer defines equity in the context of international climate negotiations, as the “fair and equitable contributions countries make in terms of emission reductions, adaptation efforts, and financial and other support countries need to prevent global emissions from creating catastrophic climate changes.” Released in October 2014 in its beta version, the tool allows users to compare up to four countries using up to eight indicators in the following six categories:

  • Current Emissions (in 2010)
  • Historical Emissions (from 1850 - 2010)
  • Development Indicators
  • Vulnerability
  • Potential for Action

The tool pulls together several datasets within each category, the data from which was then normalized for each country on a scale of 0 to 1 (notwithstanding outliers). The tool’s Development Indicator, for example, is made up of both the UNDP’s Human Development Index indicators for education and health, as well as the inverse of the World Bank’s indicator for ‘population living on $2 or less per day.' These indicators serve as proxies for the extent to which a government is able to serve its citizens.

The tool’s Vulnerability category is based on data from the DARA Climate Vulnerability Monitor, which compares a country’s GDP with the estimated cost of climate impacts that are expected to affect the country; the higher a country’s ratio of impacts to GDP, the more vulnerable. The more vulnerable (presumably, because it is less able to respond to climate impacts), the smaller the country’s slice appears on the visualizer; the less vulnerable, the larger the slice.


Figure 3. The Equity Explorer measures equity with respect to mitigation, but what about countries for whom adaptation is the priority? Small-island nations, such as Kiribati (pictured), are confronted with the effects of climate change on their low-lying land and must adapt to rising sea levels. Photo credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Perhaps the most fascinating measurement category is Potential for Action. This category includes seven indicators, that together aim to assess how much of an effect particular climate policies will have on a country. The indicators are informed again by DARA Climate Vulnerability Monitor, as well as by McKinsey and Company’s Greenhouse Gas Abatement Cost Curves. The idea is to provide a clearer picture of the costs, direct benefits, and indirect co-benefits (cleaner air and therefore less respiratory disease and death) of action at various levels of investment. Reducing emissions will likely happen where it is most cost-effective (greatest benefit at lowest investment), but this should also be weighed in tandem with the extent to which such improvements will improve local livelihoods. While the category aims to visualize this necessary part of the conversation, its execution may still be too complex for users to fully utilize.

Room to Grow


One fault of indices is their tendency to render technical a problem that is otherwise too faceted and complicated to consider in general terms. While the Equity Explorer in its structure attempts to include multiple lenses, it nonetheless has to exclude others.

For example, while GDP relative to climate-impact cost is one way to consider vulnerability, the tool doesn’t account for the geographic characteristics of each country. Small island states, for example, are on the frontlines of climate change, where rising sea levels could outpace the world’s ability to respond. Should their adaptation be financially supported first? 

Another challenge of the tool is the limited availability of global data — perhaps, where equity disparities are most visible. Country-level data for every country for every indicator simply does not exist -- a gap in data we’ve mentioned before (re: forestswater quality, and wastewater treatment).

With such challenges, how should climate equity ultimately be determined? For users of the Equity Explorer, as the tool itself suggests, the answer depends on how you look at it.