Study highlights ethical biases in quantifications of fair contributions to the Paris Climate Agreement

22 April 2021 | Story Merlyn Nomsa Nkomo. Photo Tom Fisk, Pexels.

The 2015 Paris Climate Agreement seeks to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change. A major goal of the Agreement is to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels, to be achieved on the basis of equity.

Yet the meaning of equity varies greatly. A recent study found systematic bias in “fair share” quantifications of global climate action, specifically in two aspects: effort-sharing – how to divide the global carbon budget equitably – which determines countries’ “fair shares”; and requesting countries to show how their “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs) are fair. 

A “statistical meat-grinder”

In the paper, “Ethical choices behind quantifications of fair contributions under the Paris Agreement”, leading climate social scientists, including the University of Cape Town’s Professor Harald Winkler, found that two-thirds of the studies reviewed presented as “neutral”, but they are limited by biased ethical perspectives on effort-sharing that favour wealthy nations. Additionally, many are not explicit about the fundamental ethical choices for their analysis.


Value-free methods of quantifying fair shares reduce equity to an oversimplified view yet it is primarily a political and ethical discussion.

Quantitative meta-studies for calculating fair shares, like comprehensive benchmark studies and composite approaches such as the Climate Action Tracker, mix incompatible indicators and exclude a large number of studies for being statistical “outliers”, excluding many ethical positions. Other tools hide grandfathering as an indicator, says Winkler, deep in their engine rooms. Grandfathering is incompatible with poverty eradication and the right to promote sustainable development. 

Value-free methods of quantifying fair shares reduce equity to an oversimplified view yet it is primarily a political and ethical discussion. Winkler argues that equity is a normative matter and should be treated using a wide range of tools that include moral and political philosophy.

“Calculating fair shares by running data and assumptions through a statistical meat-grinder is not value-free,” he says.

Supporting this view is Dr Kate Dooley, lead author and research fellow at the University of Melbourne, who states, “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.”

To promote transparency, the authors propose that equity of climate effort studies should not claim value neutrality as there is no ethically neutral position in the climate context. Analyses need to keep the losses of the marginalised visible as recognition is central to climate justice. Further, say the authors, political processes should not be substituted by analytical work, but be informed by it.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Please view the republishing articles page for more information.