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Common but differentiated responsibility, no more
During the climate talks in Durban large developing countries were pushed to make a significant concession
Shamindra Kulamannage
LBR,Tuesday 21 February 2012
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An unusual alliance emerged at the last round of climate change discussions in Durban when around 100 poor and vulnerable countries banded together with rich European ones to urge major polluters like China and India to agree to cut emission as part of a global deal. Negotiations for a new deal to be finalized by 2015 and implemented from 2020 are likely to be a contentious.

The centerpiece of this discord is equity. So far there have been two camps in the climate negotiation process, 37 big emitters who have hugely contributed to the problem and who under a deal stuck in the Japanese city of Kyoto agreed to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 5% from their 1990 levels. Other nations only gave general commitments under Kyoto because they were not major polluters and they had not contributed to creating the problem. This has been the ‘equity principle’ at the heart of climate negotiations - one of ‘common but differentiated responsibility’. However it appears this firewall tumbled at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP 17) in Durban South Africa. However it may be an unaffordable concession for South Asia’s largest economies.

The signs were clear ahead of the meeting. The US, which has not ratified the Kyoto Protocol, was ratcheting up the rhetoric. It argued China and India needed to do more to cut greenhouse gas emissions in support of global efforts to contain a temperature rise to blow 2 degrees Celsius by 2050. “The politics in front of the entire world today is to break the firewall,” argued Sunita Narain who heads the Delhi based NGO Centre for Science and Environment. “That firewall is a distinction between countries that have contributed to the problem of climate change and the rest of the world.”

At Durban UN climate conference, where deals have to be unanimous and even one dissenting nation can hold back the whole process, India was pushed against the wall for insisting that equity be maintained. China is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases according to 2007 emissions data closely followed by the US and India is the fifth largest emitter. “In fact from 1990 to 2009 data we put together from the UNFCC site shows that the emissions of the rich countries are actually up by 6.5%, over what was the Kyoto target which was to reduce by 5.8% on an average,” points out Narain, one of India’s most vociferous environmental campaigners.

However Indian demands for equity appear reasonable when you look at the bigger picture. In per capita terms at 5.8 tonnes greenhouse gas emissions Chinese emission are a fourth of the US where every member of the population accounts for emissions of 24.1 tonnes. By comparison India’s per capita emission in 2007 was 2.1 tonnes or around 3% of global emissions. For Sri Lanka full data is only available for the year 2000 when per capita emissions were 2.8 tonnes.

This difference was recognised in international law, the UN convention framework on climate change passed in 1992, which divides the world between those countries that have created the problem and who have to reduce their emissions first and have to create space for the rest of the world to grow. “That is the principle of equity and justice on which the framework convention on climate change in 1992 was established,” says Narain. “So the politics is all about changing the terms of the agreement so that this difference between the people who are responsible and the rest of the world is erased.” It seems this aim has been achieved.

After two weeks of negotiations, countries agreed to be part of a legally binding treaty to address global warming. However due to India’s insistence of avoiding any tight promise of a binding treaty the wording of the final text read "a process to develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties". The text’s meaning is ambiguous, typical of impasse busting political texts. However from between now to 2015 negotiations will have to define how to apply the principle of equity to a new treaty where all major polluters have in principle agreed to allow legally binding targets.

There are however loopholes under the Kyoto protocol which was also a legally binding agreement on developed countries (annexure 1 countries). If all else fails and the greenhouse gas emission rise becomes embarrassingly difficult to hide, a country could always tell the rest of humanity to go to hell like Canada did when it shed its collective responsibilities and announcing its intention to withdraw from the Kyoto protocol next year, after other signatories agreed the treaty continue till a new one replaces it in 2020.

It’s to be seen if the new global agreement will have the teeth, especially to deal with those that created the problem shunning their responsibilities. Developing countries have already made their contribution by having agreed to water down the equity principle in Durban.

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