Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR): The challenge of rejuvenating an old-school principle ahead of the 2015 climate negotiations

Last week I attended a panel discussion on ‘Revisiting the Principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR): Opportunities for the 2015 Climate Agreement’.

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      Hosted by the Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik/German Development Institute (DIE), the discussion centered around their recently published discussion paper. The paper says that countries’ contributions to global  greenhouse gas emissions and the climate change impacts they face are poles apart. These differences, as well as countries’ different capacities and development levels, have been internationally acknowledged, based on the notion of ‘Common But Differentiated Responsibilities’ (CBDR).

      Whilst the event was titled ‘opportunities for’, based on the way that the conversation went, I wondered whether ‘barriers to the 2015 climate agreement’ would have been more appropriate?

      Breaking down the 'Iron Wall' between developing and developed countries

      CBDR is the centerpiece of international climate policy under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. It is entirely based on the idea of ‘equity’. It was the driving principle of climate change policy making in the 1990s; it provided the legal basis of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997.

      Essentially, CBDR meant that it is the responsibility of the so-called ‘Global South’ to develop in a sustainable manner and adapt to climatic changes, whereas the North must mitigate its emissions in accordance with strict targets and timelines.

      This way, a red line was drawn between the responsibilities of parties, distinguishing between the developed countries and the developing countries.

      But, times have changed, and so responsibilities should change. Studies now show that the emissions of developing countries increased by more than 200 % between 1990 and 2008, while the already high emissions of industrialised countries have generally remained the same.

      Obviously, the rigid dichotomy between the North and the South, and the terminology itself, is out of date. Some even go as far as calling it “an iron wall” or “the climate regime’s greatest flaw”. Developed countries – and the United States in particular – object to CBDR as a legally binding principle and have instead pleaded for increased uniformity in parties’ obligations.

      At the 2015 UN climate summit in Paris, a legally binding climate agreement is expected to be signed by all parties. And, ambitions are high. Therefore, the general consensus in the room was that “the iron wall is to be broken down”. The CBDR principle should be reinvigorated, in order to better reflect this day’s realities. Ideally, the negotiations should move towards a ‘dynamic differentiation’ among developing countries.

      What does Europe say? What does Africa want?

      Both Africa and Europe want a strong climate agreement in 2015. That much is clear.

      The EU is the biggest historical emitter of greenhouse gasses, ever. At the same time, it spearheaded the international climate agreements. However, cracks in its climate policy have started to appear. The EU’s reduction emission goals have been outperformed by other countries.

      The EU’s stance is clear: it wants each party, also developing countries to limit or reduce its emissions. It will take this position to the 2015 climate summit.

      Africa’s common position is to ensure the survival of the CBDR principle. However, problems arise. Africa is a patchwork of countries, ranging from Least Developed Countries (LDCs) to counties with strong growth such as South Africa.

      As for South Africa, it prefers a multi-criteria approach. Taking into account its human development and respective capacities. Compared to other emerging economies such as India, South Africa sees CBDR in a more flexible manner.  It calls for ‘differentiated commitments’ for all parties.

      What to expect in 2015? 

      The final question to the presenters was how CBDR could contribute to a strong agreement in 2015? Answers were: “if CBDR allows for a flexible mechanism to define which countries reduce by how much over time”, and, “if there is a full discussion of equity and willingness to make compromises”A Chinese presenter emphasised: “If China and US fully commit”Navigating through the geo-political landscape, it is clear that a lot will depend on the USA and China. Their alliance of low ambition, such as during the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, could set a standard for the rest of the world.

      With 195 parties involved in the UN climate debate, the negotiations are extremely complex. All heads were nodding when someone said that whether there will be an agreement in 2015 remains unanswered. At this point, no one has a clear-cut solution. CBDR however could be a huge barrier to a strong settlement.

      The final hours of the Paris Summit might be decisive.

      The views expressed here are those of the author, and may not necessarily represent those of ECDPM.

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