Climate change and the Post-2015 goals: Passing ships or all in the same boat?

By Anju Sharma

The “post-2015 sustainable development agenda” involves two separate processes – development and climate change – under the UN aegis. No wonder then, that both processes share similar obstacles. A particularly contentious, is the Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR) principle.

History is easily forgotten

CBDR originated in Principle 7 of the 1992 Rio Declaration, acknowledging the different responsibilities of states: “[I]n view of the different contributions to global environmental degradation, States have common but differentiated responsibilities. The developed countries acknowledge the responsibility that they bear in the international pursuit of sustainable development in view of the pressures their societies place on the global environment and of the technologies and financial resources they command.”

CBDR also appears in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which was negotiated concurrently with the Rio Declaration. On Principles, Article 3 states, “Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. Accordingly, the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof.”

At its inception, the CBDR was viewed by some developing country commentators as a concession to the developed world. It was viewed as a dilution of the more straight-forward “polluter pays” principle, where the concepts of responsibility and liability are better defined. Accepting “differentiated responsibility” is much vaguer than accepting that countries must take responsibility on the basis of how much they pollute. (The reference to “on the basis of equity” in UNFCCC Article 3 was meant to ensure that there was some basis to determine the individual responsibility of countries).

Time can bridge differences

In spite of appearing in many multilateral agreements following the adoption of the Rio declaration and the UNFCCC, actual implementation remains weak to absent.

In the climate context, developed and developing countries may have had differentiated responsibilities under the Kyoto Protocol, but the emission reductions of the developed world were not equitable and did not add up to a fair share. Some developed countries chose to forgo or opt-out of even this limited responsibility; playing the waiting game until developing countries had no choice but to come on board and agree to take on commitments.

The differentiated vulnerability of some countries to climate change may be recognised ad nauseam in climate agreements, but not very much has been done in defining the differentiated responsibility of some countries in causing this vulnerability, or in providing fair and adequate recompense.

In the development context, the common element that extended to developed countries in the last set of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) was MDG 8. This called for a global partnership for development covering, among other things, official development assistance (ODA). The rest of the MDGs were for developing country governments to deliver on the national level.

Reviewing performance on MDG 8 in 2012, the UN System Task Team on the post-2015 agenda found that “[i]mportant shortfalls, and even some setbacks, remain in delivering on aid commitments, establishing a fairer multilateral trading system, dealing comprehensively with the debt problems of developing countries, and providing affordable access to new technologies and essential medicines, as stipulated under MDG 8”. MDG 8 has also been criticized for targets that “lack precision and stand in sharp contrast with the strict, time-bound conditionalities imposed on indebted countries”.

Universal, but surely not uniform?

Today, developing countries feel that even this diluted version of the “polluter pays” principle is threatened. Developed countries would like to replace CBDR with “applicable to all” in the climate negotiations, and “universally applicable” in the post-2015 negotiations, to reflect the “changing world order”.

The omission of CBDR in the UNFCCC’s 2011 Durban Platform for Enhanced Action(DPEA) was seen as another major concession on part of the developing countries, although the text does state that action will be “under the Convention”, and developing countries view this phrase as the inclusion of the UNFCCC principles in the DPEA.

Developed countries have contested the applicability of CBDR in the development context, arguing the Rio Declaration refers only to environmental degradation. It would appear that while they push for integration in every aspect, they choose, in this context, to separate the “sustainable” from “development” (Although the International Law Association declared, in 2002, that the CBDR principle obliged “a duty to cooperate in the achievement of global sustainable development”).

It is true that the world has changed since 1992. Distinctions between the developed and developing countries are getting more blurry, and a more refined method is now necessary to differentiate responsibility for countries, beyond the definitions of “developed” and “developing”.

In an ideal world, this affixing of responsibility “on the basis of equity” would be a task for science. Many such solutions for differentiating responsibility fairly have indeed been proposed. For instance, in climate context, by calculating the contribution of countries to global temperature rises.

In the slippery world of realpolitik, however, countries oppose any such principled, rule-based, scientific determination of responsibility. Instead, they would like to be their own judge, jury and executioner.

In climate change, they propose that they come up with their own “intended nationally determined contributions” (INDCs). (This certainly takes the prize as the most commitment-phobic phrase crafted even in the climate negotiations – intended, not promised; nationally determined, as in on their own terms; and contributions, not commitments).

It is very possible that the situation will get so desperate in the climate negotiations over the next year that INDCs will start to look good even without an evaluation of their fairness, effectiveness in addressing climate change, or any degree of legal bindingness. If that happens, we may as well write off multilateralism. The global climate negotiations will disintegrate into even more acrimonious and meaningless debates in future, as the lack of justice in affixing responsibility rankles in countries that have shoulder more than their share of the climate burden.

In the post-2015 negotiations, CBDR finds a mention in both the proposed SDGs and the HLPF-2 Ministerial Declaration. The rhetoric is intact for now, and we can only hope that action will follow.

“We would have to ensure that unlike the MDGs, the SDGs do not end up being a series of policy prescriptions for only one set of countries,” Indian diplomat, Tanmaya Lal, said in his statement to the ninth session of the OWG, “A truly universal set of goals implies, first and foremost, that the developed countries also take on concrete commitments and deliverables.” Pushing for a standalone goal on sustainable consumption and lifestyles, Lal called for differentiation, as embodied in the principle of CBDR, to be the basis for the SDGs.

Share the gain, not just the pain

On the one hand, developing countries are being asked to take more responsibility in global agreements like the UNFCCC to reflect the realities of a changing world. On the other hand, they are being denied the privileges of this changing world. This only adds to the mistrust created by the refusal of the developed world to lead the way in taking responsibility on the basis of equitable differentiation.

The recent launch of the BRICs bank as an alternative to the World Bank and the IMF is an indication of the frustration that the continued domination of industrialised countries in these global institutions has caused. “We must address the abiding democratic deficit in the institutions of global governance,” Lal told the OWG. “Developing countries need to be given real voice and participation in global decision making.”

This sort of overhaul of global governance is needed to turn the two passing ships of the post-2015 and climate processes into the same boat.

About the Author:

AnjuAnju Sharma began her career as a journalist before she went on to work in sustainable development in UNEP and Oxfam GB. She currently heads the Policy Analysis and Publications Unit of the European Capacity Building Initiative, a Visiting Fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development and work as a consultant for the International Institute of Sustainable Development’s Reporting Services. More of her posts can be found here.