Responsibility for action on climate change has traditionally been more portrayed as a burden for developed, industrialized countries. The Kyoto Protocol requires only the Annex I countries–which at that time were the more advanced economies–to commit to legally binding mitigation targets. In addition to that, UN organizations and the early COPs are also focused more on developed countries. However this approach is challenged as the world economy landscape has dramatically changed in the recent years. Although the initial COPs only required Annex I countries to commit to mitigation targets, recent negotiations have placed more responsibility and pressure on developing countries as new mitigation frameworks such as Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions become promulgated in more and more countries. One key rationale for letting traditionally developing countries commit more, is that emerging economies like China and India are taking over the developed countries as the major carbon polluters.
The changing role of emerging economies has quickly become a large obstacle for the climate negotiations. Although both the American and Chinese delegations claimed that their countries are committed to addressing global warming at the Climate Summit hosted by the UNSG in September, it is also known that President Obama implied that the US will not fully commit if China does not. China, on the other hand, emphasized the historical responsibility of industrialized countries. It is unquestionable that to fill the 2020 emission gap, the commitments from emerging economies are vital despite the fact that they do not belong to the Annex I category.
In addition to large emerging economies like China and India, the Convention also has the responsibility of negotiating mitigation and adaptation plans for smaller developing countries. Two of the most critical groups are the least developed countries (LDCs) and small islands states (AOSIS and CARICOM). These countries either have limited capability to mitigate (or even should have no responsibility to mitigate) or are very dependent on mitigation. Addressing the needs of them will also be critical in the upcoming negotiations.
Today, 80% of the fuel burned globally are fossil fuels. The developed countries might achieve their mitigation targets relatively easily, either because they have the technological capacity or because they have more transitioned and more advanced economy. The developing countries will still depend on fossil fuels for the near future and actually in the meantime suffer more from global warming. Among the developing countries, they are the most vulnerable group and also the ones who wish to protect their growing economies. They will need assistance from developed countries and the UN for both mitigation and adaptation purposes. The UN system should play a more constructive role in this.
This summer I was fortunate to have the opportunity to do an internship at the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in New York City. UN organizations today play an important role in addressing issues like climate change. UNEP, together with other UN agencies like UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the UNFCCC will inevitably become more involved in the scientific investigation of climate change, the organization of the negotiations and the implementation of climate change adaptation policies. However, for a variety of reasons, the UN is not fully addressing the needs of developing countries especially in terms of climate change negotiations. For example, from my own experience, I found that the staff from developing countries are somewhat underrepresented. As the negotiating process for setting targets and adaptation becomes more important, UN organizations need to focus more on the developing countries, by directing more resources to help both mitigation and adaptation. And in my personal opinion, the convention of dividing Annex I and Annex II is no longer appropriate.