Common but Differentiated Responsibilities in climate change and sustainable development at COP 19

Sonali P. Chitre & Theresa M. McCarty, Priyamvada Sustainability Consulting LLC

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of the Parties (COP) process has long spurred lively debate but has been hindered by a lack of ambition by major players in making commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs).  Although most people now believe in the science-based evidence that high-emitting human behaviour is causing changes in weather patterns and temperature levels, the challenges of political action and cooperation still loom large.  The real question is:  Who bears the cost of reducing emissions and paying for adaptation, technology, and other capacity building measures – is it only the developed countries?

The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report (Working Group I) concluded with 95 per cent confidence that human activity is the primary contributor to climate change.  According to the report, if emissions do not peak by 2020, global temperatures could increase by as much as 2⁰C by the end of the 21st century. 

Since all countries are impacted by climate change, every country must participate in a regime to cut emissions, yet the current status is a stalemate.  Climate change has been dubbed ‘the mother of all collective action problems.’  Finding solutions is difficult because a country that unilaterally acts first to dramatically reduce emissions would potentially put itself at an economic competitive disadvantage because other countries may still fail to make commitments.

Industrialised nations, which are the largest emitters of GHGs, obviously have the most work to do.  However, these nations have been unwilling to set absolute caps on GHG emissions or undertake strong domestic or international commitments, upsetting smaller emitters.  Smaller emitters – mostly developing countries – are frustrated by developed nations’ lack of willingness to make meaningful efforts.  Developing countries also argue that their emissions are part of an industrialisation process that larger nations have already gone through, and hence they are entitled to do the same.

In terms of the world’s largest emitters, China, the United States, and India, are three countries that have recently called for flexible approaches to mitigation, which signals their desire not to make strong and absolute mitigation commitments.  China, India, and the United States have also been widely criticised for their lack of participation in the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol and perceived lack of interest in being part of a global solution to climate change.

In the United States, President Obama announced his Climate Action Plan in June 2013, and its third pillar states the objective:  to ‘Lead International Efforts to Combat Global Climate Change and Prepare for its Impacts’ so the US can ‘drive progress through the international negotiations.’  Although the US Environmental Protection Agency is regulating GHG emissions from new coal plants, comprehensive climate legislation in the US may be a decade away. Many Republicans in the US Congress still question the science behind the human impact on climate change and point to potential job losses if the US sets a carbon price or enacts a cap and trade policy.

China has engaged in emissions trading and the government has invested $58.4 billion into renewable energy sources like solar and wind.  However, China has not yet agreed to an absolute cap on emissions.  India has similarly seen a surge in solar projects and more than twenty businesses launched the India Greenhouse Gas Programme in July 2013, a purely voluntary scheme.  But since India’s per capita emissions are comparatively low, its position has long been that it should not have to make deep emissions cuts. 

Both India and China argue that they have a fundamental right to development and must be able to emit GHGs to achieve minimum standards of living for their people; yet these standards must be called into question when air pollution is so severe that it is difficult to even walk the streets of major cities like Beijing.

COP 19 centres on GHG mitigation commitments through the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (Durban Platform or ADP).  The mandate of the ADP is to develop a protocol, another legal instrument, or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention and applicable to all Parties, to be agreed by 2015.  However, there is no certainty that the ADP will produce a legally binding agreement.  Without a legally binding agreement, signatory countries can disregard any provision that goes against their national interests.  Further, considering the agreement is not scheduled to be implemented until 2020, the ADP commitments may prove too little, too late to stave off the climate impacts that the IPCC predicts will occur unless GHG emissions peak by 2020.

In addition, the Durban Platform makes no mention of the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR), a defining element of the Kyoto Protocol. However, securing equity is essential to a breakthrough in the negotiations, and a large part of this stems from the principle of CBDR.

So what would be an acceptable outcome from COP 19?  Governments must make strong commitments in the areas of climate finance, loss and damage, adaptation, measurement, reporting, and verification (MRV), mitigation and accounting, and Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+). 

In the spirit of the principle of CBDR, developed countries have a strong obligation to stand up against climate change, but some of the burden must also fall on developing countries. Ignoring the impacts of climate change is inexcusable, and developing countries, especially rapidly developing economies such as China and India, must also commit to sustainable development.

Climate change is the ultimate indicator of unsustainable development.  We must undertake sustainable development based on the principles of intergenerational equity, sustainable and equitable use of resources, and integration.  Follow up on the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio+20, that took place in 2012, includes attempting to reconcile and integrate the economic, environmental, and social dimensions of sustainable development through the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals and the High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development.  There must be an integration of the UNFCCC negotiations and the sustainable development negotiations in terms of shared frameworks, procedures, and thinking.

The UNFCCC process has to be meaningful to provide top down global leadership.  COP 19 provides a critical opportunity for the global community to come together and move forward toward the common goal of finding an intergovernmental solution to the climate crisis.  Hopefully the largest emitters will accept accountability and agree to decisive action in the areas of mitigation, adaptation, finance, and technology.

About the authors

Ms. Chitre is an international environmental and energy attorney and consultant who currently serves as the President and CEO of Priyamvada Sustainability Consulting LLC (PSC) in New York City.  PSC’s focus is to deploy clean technologies in emerging markets to combat the climate crisis by providing policy advisory services and guidance on navigating regulatory frameworks in addition to strategic management, partnership due diligence, and capital raising.  Ms. McCarty works with PSC and Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy.