In a declaration that surprised many in the United Nations community, the poorest nations of the world announced today that they are now prepared to commit themselves to binding cuts in their greenhouse gas emissions.
Common But Differentiated Responsibility
For years, UN negotiations designed to combat climate change through international emissions-reducing agreements have stalled or petered out since the initial Kyoto Protocol agreements of 1997. Many observers of the process have suggested that one reason for the stall has been disagreement over the idea of “common but differentiated responsibility” for emissions reductions. First outlined in the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, agreed at the 1995 Berlin summit, and enshrined in the Kyoto Protocol, this principle says that:
“In view of the different contributions to global environmental degradation, States have common but differentiated responsibilities. The developed countries acknowledge the responsibility that they bear in the international pursuit of sustainable development in view of the pressures their societies place on the global environment and of the technologies and financial resources they command.”
Essentially, conflict in the UN General Assembly and climate negotiations led by the UNFCCC has arisen over the responsibilities of developing states regarding emissions reductions. Until now, some developing states have refused to move to reduce their emissions, arguing that climate change is a problem that they had no hand in creating. Developed states like the U.S. and Canada have in turn refused to commit to internationally agreed-upon emissions measures without guarantees from the developing states.
A Way Forward
However, given this 180 degree shift by the Group of Least Developed Countries in the UN, future emissions reduction negotiations might proceed more smoothly, and with more tangible outcomes. The LDC group is a major negotiating bloc at the UN representing 12% of the world’s population. By acting first to cut emissions, the LDC’s might be able to encourage hesitant developed states to match carbon reductions during upcoming UNFCCC negotiations in Bonn and beyond.
According to lead negotiator Quamrul Chowdhury of Bangladesh, the LDC Group has agreed to binding emissions cuts by all signatories to the Kyoto Protocol, not just by industrialized countries. However, Chowdhury also suggested that developed nations must now do more to match their developing peers while still respecting their differentiated responsibilities regarding climate change. Adaptation efforts in Bangladesh, Nepal and Mozambique could provide a model, according to Chowdhury.
The BASIC Truth
Of course, this game has never been about the LDC’s, because their emissions are so low that any cuts will not have a real impact on global emissions. The real conflict has always been between fast developing countries like the so-called BASIC group of Brazil, South Africa, India and China and developed nations. Annex I countries, like the U.S. and EU have argued that uncapped emissions in fast developing countries mean that capped emissions can simply ‘flee’ to uncapped areas – and this ‘carbon flight’ would mean that the climate remains at risk. Up to now, BASIC countries have called for ‘solidarity’ among developing countries (including LDC’s) in opposing any binding caps. With the LDC’s now calling for a cap on emissions, it is clear that the BASIC group’s efforts have simply been a self-interested way to ensure their emissions remain uncapped.
By reversing their position on binding emissions cuts, the states of the LDC Group have removed a major obstacle to climate change mitigation efforts. They have changed the entire framework of this debate and committed to solving a problem they (for the most part) had no hand in creating. The ball, at least for the time being, is indisputably in the rest of the world’s court.