The Kyoto Protocol makes it very clear: developed nations (or: Annex I countries) are obliged to limit or reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions on the basis of quantifiable targets, developing nations are not. What is described in Article 10 of the Protocol as “common but differentiated responsibilities” was first introduced by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992 and later confirmed in the 1995 Berlin Mandate. In the 1992 Convention Parties agreed that they would protect the climate “on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” (Art. 3.1).
Over the years, however, the sharp distinction between Annex I and non-Annex I countries as a basis for defining who has to take legally-binding, quantifiable action seems to have become an obstacle to agreeing on a new climate change treaty – at least from the perspective of several developed countries. The United Sates, for instance, has repeatedly stated that it would not sign any new agreement that limits developed countries’ GHG output unless the agreement also specifies schedules to limit GHG emissions from developing countries over the same period. Similarly, Canada has been insisting that all major emitters shall commit to binding objectives, although with differing levels of ambition.
In 2011, at the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UNFCCC in Durban, however, things seemed to have brought about a twist to the Annex I/non-Annex I distinction. When countries agreed to the Durban Platform on Enhanced Action (ADP), they pledged to adopt a new climate change treaty with GHG emissions reductions for all Parties by 2015 (effective by 2020). Some observers considered this the final abolishment of the separation of developed and developing countries into two distinct groups and heralded a “new phase” in the international climate change negotiations.
However, this year’s 19th COP in Warsaw, Poland, seems to reverse this trend and retain the old dichotomous distinction. On Tuesday during the opening plenary of the third part of the second session of the ad Hoc Working Group of the ADP, developing countries made very clear that they want to uphold the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities in the post-2020 treaty. The G-77 + China group, the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), the Group of Least Developed Countries (LDC), the BASIC group, the Like-Minded Developing countries (LMDC), and others supported this view.
The Venezuelan speaker of the LMDC group was particularly outspoken about the issue. He said that his group would reject any abolishment, rewriting, or reinterpretation of the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. Rather, developed countries need to take the lead in combating climate change as laid out in Article 3.1 of the UNFCCC. The delegate also emphasized the historic responsibility of developed economies for the climate change problem, and urged them to increase their commitments, fulfill their financing obligations, and remove barriers for technology transfer, among others. Developing countries, on the other hand, would continue their voluntary actions.
Without bringing all major emitters on board of a legally binding agreement with targets that lead to a stabilization or reduction of GHG emissions in both developed and developing countries, however, the Parties’ goal of limiting increase in global mean temperature to 2° above pre-industrial levels will be very difficult or even impossible to achieve.
In 2012, nine out of the 20 biggest CO2 emitters were non-Annex I countries, including largest CO2 emitter China and fourth largest emitter India. China and India are also among the ten nations that have emitted most emissions cumulatively between 1850 and 2007 (2nd and 8th respectively) although the United States is by far the largest emitter according to this metric, being responsible for roughly 29% of all emissions.
Adopting quantifiable targets for developing countries does not necessarily imply that they need to reduce their GHG emissions in the short- or medium-term. Given the fast economic and population growth in some of these countries, an agreement to slow down the increase in their GHG output might already be a helpful step. Moreover, if Parties were unable to agree on absolute emissions reductions or limitations for developing nations, relative targets that take into account fast changing variables such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP) or population could be a possible alternative.