The global warming we are witnessing today is believed to be the result of greenhouse gases accumulated in the atmosphere over the last 150 years. For at least the first hundred of these years, GHG emissions came almost exclusively from the USA, Canada, Japan, Russia, Australia, New Zealand and Europe. Even in 1990 — by when many countries in Asia and Africa had become industrialised — this group of 30-odd countries accounted for over 60% of accumulated emissions since 1850, according to the dataset of the Washington-based World Resources Institute.
When the world first became conscious of the need to tackle global warming and climate change, in the early 1990s, it was considered fair that those who had created the problem be made responsible for cleaning the mess. The ‘polluter pays’ principle, widely accepted in environmental law across the globe these days, had just been introduced, having been included in the Rio Declaration on Environment and Climate in 1992.
The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC, was also a child of the same Rio conference. The UNFCCC came into being in 1994, with the mandate to find a solution to the problem of climate change. It divided the world in two neat groups — countries that needed to cut GHG emissions, and those that didn’t. The 37 countries that were supposed to take emission cuts were named in Annexure I of the Convention, and came to be famously known as ‘Annex-I’ countries. The rest of the world was the ‘non-Annex countries’.
The division was made by unanimous decision and was considered fair. It helped that the Annex-I countries were also rich and more capable, and thus better placed to take emission cuts, which could not be achieved without restraining economic activity in some way.
It wasn’t as if the non-Annex countries needed to do nothing. The UNFCCC realised, and stressed, that climate change was a global problem, and needed to be tackled with global effort. Once emitted, GHGs could not be restricted to a particular country or region, and added to the global concentration in the atmosphere. Non-Annex countries too were, therefore, expected to act on climate change — taking adaptation measures and acting swiftly to move to a low-carbon growth trajectory. However, mandatory emission cuts was something they were supposed to be exempt from, at least in the near term.
Thus was established the principle of differentiation, through the expression ‘Common But Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities’ (CBDR-RC), in the UNFCCC. CBDR-RC has been at the heart of climate change conversations ever since — and has also been the cause for much heartburn in recent times.
The Annex-I countries did not have much objection to CBDR in the early years — the non-Annex world swears by it even now — and the Kyoto Protocol could be negotiated in just three years after the UNFCCC came into being. The Kyoto Protocol, now in its last years, asked the Annex-I countries to collectively reduce their GHG emissions by at least 5% below their 1990 levels by 2012. Countries were assigned individual targets to meet this overall goal.
It was a very modest target, but by the time the Kyoto Protocol came into effect in 2005, the Annex-I countries had turned against it — and had started getting distinctly uncomfortable with CBDR. The economic implications of such an arrangement had started dawning. The fallout of the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 was still being felt, and many western countries were not ready to put constraints on their economies for a global cause that had no direct and immediate returns.
The rapid growth of China from the 1990s too had started to hurt the interests of the West. Stricter emission standards for their industries would have made their products even more non-competitive against Chinese goods. It helped their case that China’s emissions had also been rising rapidly, and around 2007, China had overtaken the US as the world’s leading emitter of GHGs.
While the Annex-I countries continued to pay lip service to CBDR, they had clearly had enough of it. The US refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and, for the first time since the birth of UNFCCC, started playing a proactive role in shaping the global architecture on climate change. The argument was that without restraining the emissions of China — and India, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico, etc. — no effective fight against global warming could be launched.
The CBDR, as enshrined in the UNFCCC, had its last hurrah at the 2007 climate conference in Bali. It was agreed unanimously that Annex-I nations must not only undertake emission cuts, but also provide finance and technology to the developing world. The Bali Roadmap for a new climate treaty was broader and more comprehensive than the Kyoto Protocol. The treaty was to be finalised at Copenhagen in 2009.
But Copenhagen collapsed, not the least because of strong opposition from Annex-I countries — mainly the US, Australia, Japan, Canada and a few others — to perpetuating a Kyoto-type arrangement. Shortly thereafter, some of these countries, including Japan, Australia and Canada, actually walked out of the Kyoto Protocol.
Then began a concerted effort to pull down the CBDR wall. It was argued that the 2010s were very different from the 1990s, and without action from every country, there was no hope of success in the fight against climate change. Developed countries continued to wear the cloak of morality, and were careful not to junk the idea of differentiation altogether. But they were clear that they would not be the only ones to carry the burden of mitigating the impacts of climate change.
With the most powerful and resourceful countries aligned on one side, there was little doubt they would have their way. After several rounds of bargaining, persuasion and even threats, the current formulation — on the basis of which a new agreement is to be finalised in Paris next month — was decided in Durban in 2013. Now every country needed to take demonstrable action, the quantum and extent of which was to be decided by the country itself. The only difference was the implicit understanding that developed countries would necessarily undertake emission cuts. But the quantum of these cuts, again, were to be self-determined, and not assigned in a Kyoto-like way. Never mind the fact that unlike the Kyoto mechanism that assigned emission cut targets keeping a global goal in mind, this everyone-does-what-they-like approach was unlikely to add up to be adequate, and currently it isn’t. This formulation was given the name of ‘Intended Nationally Determined Contributions’, or INDCs, another addition to the vast number of acronyms in the climate change dictionary.
While the developing countries have watched the CBDR wall being almost completely demolished, the onslaught from the developed world has continued, sometimes through attempts to expand the list of countries that can be mandated to provide international finance to deal with climate change, at others through a barely-disguised desire to junk the 1994 Convention altogether.