Mitigation and the Differentiation Chameleon

A central part of the upcoming climate negotiations in Paris (and even sooner, Bonn) is the question of “differentiation”. How should the responsibilities for dealing with climate change be differentiated among countries with vastly different levels of development and contribution to the problem?

It’s been determined since the Durban COP in 2011 that the new agreement as a whole should be “applicable to all parties”. However, the agreement itself will undoubtedly involve  differentiation, probably in a complex form. As a report from C2ES puts it “the most feasible solution to differentiation in the 2015 agreement is likely to be a hybrid approach that tailors the manner of differentiation…to the specific elements of the agreement”.  Hybrid is a good metaphor, but I prefer to think of differentiation as a chameleon. Although it is one concept, it will probably appear one way in the context of mitigation, another way in the context of adaptation, a third in the context of finance, and so on. C2ES calls this the “most feasible solution”, but I think it is also can be compatible with fairness.  To help explain the details, I’ll focus on the element of mitigation.

File:Chameleon 2006-01.jpg

(image: Ridard/Wikimedia Commons)

Looking at the  UNFCCC “co-chairs tool” (an informal skeleton of the text that will be negotiated at Paris)  the language of differentiation in mitigation (Part I, sec. D, para 4)  involves the usual proliferation of brackets, modifiers, links back to previous principles, and nuance. Despite the increasingly diverse nature of negotiating positions at the UNFCCC, one can see a rough and ready division between approaches that split countries into two categories (keywords: “developed” vs “developing”, “common but differentiated responsibilities”) and those which call for commitments that take a similar procedural form from all countries (keywords: “all parties”).

There’s an important distinction to be made even within the category of mitigation.  For better or worse, (that’s another post) Paris will almost certainly mean that  all countries will  have the final say on the level of their mitigation commitments – i.e. how much they agree to reduce their emissions.  This is self differentiation of emissions targets. Thus on mitigation, the Paris agreement can determine (merely?)  what I will call “mitigation commitment procedures”. Rather than impose specific targets on each country,  it will hopefully regulate the details of how and how often countries are to independently report, and be measured on their targets, as well as the legal force of those targets. It also will mandate important details, such as which gases commitments can focus on, and the role of market-based mechanisms in meeting commitments. So if Paris will leave the “what” of mitigation commitments up to individual countries , what about the “how”? Should these mitigation commitment procedures be the same for all countries?

To me it seems obvious that some countries, such as Chad, with the fourth lowest ranking on the Human Development Index and per capita CO2 emissions roughly a hundred times less than most developed countries,  should actually have no mitigation responsibility at all for the near future. Thus, ethically speaking, Chad shouldn’t need to submit any commitment into the post-Paris UNFCCC process. But this is a bad reason to try to instill differentiation explicitly into the commitment procedures. If self-differentiation of targets is permitted, even blanket regulations about reporting and measuring targets can accommodate countries without responsibility (like Chad) submitting extremely weak, even trivial mitigation targets until their situation improves.  This might seem like a sloppy workaround, but the feasible alternative, looking at the  UNFCCC  negotiations so far, would be to retain something like the Annexes from the Kyoto Protocol or a brute distinction between developing and developed countries. This seems to be far too blunt an instrument to do the job of exempting countries with no responsibility from mitigation commitment procedures.

Graph:  Enescot. Data: IEA

However, I can think of two more plausible arguments to include differentiation in commitment regulations in the Paris Agreement.

The realpolitik argument: If all countries are bound by a common mitigation commitment procedure, the realities of global politics will  make it easier for developed countries to shirk their responsibility, by pressuring developing countries to set themselves unfair targets, or blaming them for the emissions gap. It will be easier for the developed countries to pass the buck when the developing countries are outside the support of the quasi-consensus rule of the UNFCCC.

The symbolic argument:  letting developed countries “get away” with  universal mitigation commitment procedures symbolises a concession in an international forum that developed countries don’t actually have the bulk of the responsibility to deal with climate change. As well as reducing the ambition in developed countries to set strong climate change targets, this concession might weaken the position of developing countries on other issues of global justice where the developed countries also have the moral responsibility to act.

To my eye, the best way forward seems to be to aim for universality in the Paris text around mitigation, and, in return, for developed countries to allow explicit language and principles of differentiation to come into to other parts of the Paris agreement. Finance, adaptation, and technology transfer, for example, are areas where the developed world can make a major impact even acting alone. Building strong differentiation into the agreement about these other issues can signal developed countries’ good-faith commitment to lead on mitigation and respect the demands of global justice despite universality in the regulations around mitigation commitments. What do you think?

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