12/06/2010 10:40 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Equity or Nothing at UN Climate Talks in Cancun

Raise your glass if you are cynical about the UN's international climate negotiations. The talks starting on Nov 30 in Cancun, Mexico are the 16th Conference of Parties (COP) to the UN climate framework signed back in 1992. Expectations are low for COP-16, which may go down in history alongside COP-13 in Bali and COP-14 in Poznan, Poland. What? Where? Exactly.

COP-15 a year ago in Copenhagen was a higher profile affair. The scientists said that the world must take action starting in Copenhagen or else, and this was President Obama's big chance to prove to the world that the Bush-era diplomacy nightmare was over. Instead, by the end of the conference China shrugged ambivalently at a scrap of paper with no targets.

Bill McKibben's effort did an excellent job simplifying the message with a single number leading up to the event, but the coal and oil lobby's won the war by diverting attention at the key moments with red herring hacked emails that in the end were mostly a bunch of nonsense. The next generation will wonder how they were able to somehow set back the public's understanding of climate change by about a decade, with political fallout that then helped usher a new class of climate deniers into Congress.

So another year of global warming went by, and the UN delegates have re-assembled to take part in an impossible mission of getting 190 countries to agree, by consensus, to a global greenhouse gas emission reduction agreement. Even the one time they were successful with the Kyoto Protocol, emissions still went up. With success like that, who needs failure?

They have been meeting for 18 years. A baby at COP-1 has graduated high school by COP-16, and the UN delegates are still asking the same questions. Will there be mandatory timetables and emissions targets? Who goes first: the U.S. and Europe or China and India? Hasn't anyone figured out a concept that would unify the UN's 192 countries around a single international framework?

Well, how about equity? Something for everyone.

Contraction & Convergence (C&C) is an example of a simple equity framework. It was devised by Aubrey Meyer of the Global Commons Institute in the UK. C&C starts with a target (say 350 ppm), then says that wealthy countries must reduce emissions (contraction), and then all countries move towards equity in emissions (converge). The first model for C&C focused on countries. Say the average human emits around 5 tons of GHGs per year. Americans emit 20 tons per capita of GHGs each year, but Ethiopians and Haitians emit 1 ton or less per capita. The C&C agreement would set a date in the future when all countries would have equal per capita emissions, and would set up a tradable permit system to implement this transition. Voila! An equity framework.

Who will be opposed to equity? Those who think they are a "special case." Well, if everyone is a special case, then you are back to equity. The U.S. has a sizable contingent of climate deniers in Congress and followers of that crazy brunette lady from Alaska with the reality TV show and the Facebook page who like to think that America is the greatest and deserves to use up the entire remaining capacity of atmospheric commons, and let the island nations sink, the Bangladeshis migrate or drown, and millions of species go extinct. That is immoral. The only moral solution is an equity framework, where we know we're all headed to the same destination, and the delegates' only job is to negotiate the timing -- i.e. 2040 or 2060?

Cap & Share is a possible stepping stone on the path to global equity. A declining upstream Cap is placed on fossil fuel production and imports. Every person is granted a Share of the Cap, which they sell to the upstream fossil companies. This returns the windfall profits from rising fuel prices back to the people. In the U.S., the Share may come in the form of a dividend. Upstream producers and importers must buy permits for every gallon or barrel, and the auction proceeds are returned directly to the people. Everyone gets the same dividend. Everyone gets the same Share.

If governments remain co-opted by fossil corporations, then the citizens may need to form an independent Global Climate Trust that enlightened localities can sign on to. As more places adopt equal dividends and shares from the ground up, maybe the UN delegates will notice that equity is the only way forward. Hopefully that will come before COP-98.