UN climate talks: Brazil proposes discussions on historical responsibility for emissions

Will principle of equity find place in climate negotiations?

By Uthra Radhakrishnan
Published: Friday 15 November 2013

Greenpeace activists and other civil society members holding photos of the 30 people arrested in Russia over a protest against Arctic oil drilling at the 19th conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP19) at the National Stadium in Warsaw November 13 (photo by Arnab Pratim Dutta)

As delegates at the climate change conference in Warsaw prepare for the arrival of their ministers next week for the next phase of negotiations, focused discussions are taking place on several subjects. These include loss and damage arising from impacts of climate change, a new market mechanism and reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD). As parties (countries) try to ensure negotiation space for subjects most important to them when their ministers start the high-level discussions, the principle of “equity” remains a big question.

Brazil has put forward a proposal that says historical greenhouse gas emissions of countries should be the indicator to determine who will do how much to reduce emissions and contain temperature rise. For this, it is asking the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to undertake a study on how the increase in temperature corresponding to historical emissions can be used as a metric. With a recent announcement from the largest developing country negotiation bloc—G77 and China—supporting it, the proposal is gathering more prominence at the talks. According to the statement given by Jennifer Morgan, head of the climate change programme at the World Resources Institute (a global research organisation), to Bloomberg news, the proposal to use the historical emissions as a guide is here to stay and not going away.

However, there are concerns about how much influence the current proposal could have on shaping the debate on the future deal taking place under ADP, the working body set up to discuss elements of a future deal to be agreed to in Paris in 2015. This proposal has currently been made under a more technical working body called SBSTA. While in some senses, this takes away the political tension that surrounds the issue of equity, this could turn into a potentially lengthy process under the SBSTA, limiting the influence it can have under the ADP discussions.

US, EU oppose move

Developed countries that include the EU and the US have, not surprisingly, registered their reservations over such an approach. For the US, the country with the largest chunk of historical emissions, this approach spells doom. For the EU that has for long been arguing that current realities need to be taken into account in any emerging agreement, such an approach falls short. Another limitation would be its focus only on responsibility—the contribution of countries to climatic crisis—and not taking into account the capability of countries to address climate change. These are known to be to the two sides of the infamous “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” (CBDR/RC) principle in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), agreed to by all countries in 1992.

This principle is usually considered a cornerstone principle, particularly by developing countries, as it differentiates between developed and developing countries; this found emphasis in the interventions made by several parties at the opening plenary of ADP. But while the principle itself remains sacrosanct to developing countries, several experts and civil society actors working outside the convention want to see the principles captured in quantified terms that would guide party commitments.

According to Tom Athanasiou from the Ecoequity group that has been working on one such formulation, “without a framework in place that guides and assesses that countries are doing their fair share, it becomes a free-for-all in which each country chooses what it wants to do.” Countries are being asked to nationally formulate what their commitments would be for a deal in 2015. But whether all national efforts would collectively add up to ensuring that the world stays on track to contain global average temperature rise to 2°C is a question that remains to be answered. While frameworks such as the one that Athanasiou and others are talking about would provide the yardsticks to assess if countries’ efforts are actually fair and in line with their responsibility as well as capability, they currently do not enjoy formal negotiation space.
The Brazilian proposal, limited as it maybe, could provide the window of opportunity to discuss such proposals to ensure that equity principle may finally find expression in a future agreement.


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