Guest Contribution

Achieving Intergenerational Equity: What will COP21 mean for future generations?

by Timothy Damon, Policy & Advocacy Coordinator for the SustainUS delegation to COP21

How will people alive in fifty years remember November 30, 2015, the day that world leaders gathered to commence the 21st session (COP-21) of the U.N. climate negotiations in Paris? Whether today’s youth and future generations consider this meeting a success or a failure depends on the content of the Paris Agreement it is set to produce. Will this be the first international legal document in history to recognize the principle of Intergenerational Equity?

Intergenerational Equity (or Inteq for short) is essentially the idea that each generation should conduct its affairs in such a way that subsequent generations will have opportunities, resources, and a quality of life at least as good as those enjoyed by people living in the present. This concept is crucially important for addressing climate change, due to the unprecedented harm current actions (such as the reckless burning of fossil fuels) will cause for future generations (in the form of rising seas, disrupted agriculture, and other impacts). We therefore have a moral obligation to future generations to transition our global society onto a just and sustainable pathway.

One can view Inteq as the fundamental, cross-cutting purpose of the Paris Agreement.  Indeed, the founding purpose of the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – the body which conducts the climate negotiations – was to “prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system” in order to protect it “for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind”. This language clearly states that climate change is an intergenerational issue. Now, in 2015, the time has come for the UNFCCC to go a step further by officially recognizing the importance of Inteq in the Agreement.

Indeed, the current text drafted for the Paris Agreement includes two references to Inteq, which are the result of over two years of work by the Intergenerational Equity Group at the climate negotiations. A network of various organizations engaging with this UN process, the Inteq Group believes that making an explicit reference to Inteq will provide needed support for many other initiatives aimed at protecting future generations. These include proposals to establish legal guardians and representatives for future generations; to change the way economic modelling of climate policy values the future, such that future lives are not discounted; and to provide more opportunities and access for young people to have a meaningful role in current decision-making.

Recognizing Inteq in the Paris Agreement would also support other aspects of the climate negotiations. Many are demanding the inclusion of a Long-Term Goal for ending the use of fossil fuels; a statement such as this is precisely the kind of prospective, visionary thinking Inteq requires of us. Similarly, advocates for the creation of a mechanism addressing the Loss and Damage associated with climate change (i.e., those negative impacts which exceed our capacity for Adaptation), also benefit; Inteq provides a tangible connection to the devastating, yet seemingly distant impacts of climate change that will not manifest until later this century. Finally, Inteq reinforces the push to recognize the connection between human rights and climate change, given its argument that future generations are also the holders of rights which entail obligations on the present generation.

It is also important to note that Inteq goes hand in hand with the idea of intra-generational equity (i.e., a fair distribution between people of the present generation). Inteq applies rights to all future persons without discrimination, meaning there must also be equity within this unborn generation. Once again, this is especially relevant for climate change, since those current persons who already suffer from marginalization and inequality today will also end up being those worst affected by future climate impacts.  Therefore, ensuring equity for future generations requires taking action in order to eliminate poverty and to achieve equity in the present.

Everyone gathered in Paris for the COP-21 faces a great challenge. For countries, many high-level political decisions on the core topics await a consensus-based resolution. For civil society, many days of anxiously pushing on all fronts for a stronger agreement, both inside and outside the negotiations, lie ahead. For future generations, their young advocates from the Inteq Group will give them a voice, in the hope of making history by securing the first-ever reference in Intergenerational Equity in international law. Such a victory would pave the way for myriad further initiatives on behalf of future generations, propelling the topic of Intergenerational Equity well beyond the conclusion of COP21 and the signing of a Paris Agreement.


Timothy Damon at COP21

Timothy Damon is Policy & Advocacy Coordinator for the SustainUS delegation to COP21. He holds a M.Sc. in Climate Change & International Development from the University of East Anglia, with a focus in Water Security, and a B.A. in Law & Policy from Dickinson College, with a minor in Economics. He has been involved with the UNFCCC since COP17, and is a thought leader among the youth on the concept of Intergenerational Equity.

Posted by Future Justice on 1 December 2015

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