What Will 'Common But Differentiated Responsibility' Mean After Paris?

Dec. 9, 2015

Here at the UN climate summit is Paris, negotiators are hashing out the new meaning of an old term: common but differentiated responsibility (CBDR). CBDR has been a bedrock principle of climate negotiations since 1992. It was the basis for dividing the world into two camps: 37 developed nations that had binding greenhouse gas emissions reductions targets, and the rest of the world. There are many definitions for CBDR, but the best one I’ve heard was given by former Undersecretary of State Tim Wirth before a skeptical Senate committee. Defending the fairness of CBDR, he said that it means all nations are in the same boat, but some nations like the United States have to do more work than others to pull the oars.

The Paris agreement is based on voluntary climate commitments by every party, so if everyone is pulling an oar, to use Wirth’s metaphor, is there any continuing role for CBDR? The U.S. position in Paris is pretty clear: CBDR is old news. As lead U.S. negotiator Todd Stern put it, “What is expected from countries should be differentiated to capture their varying circumstances and capabilities today and in the future, not based on outdated categories created in 1992.”

Other countries, led by India, are just as adamant that the Paris agreement must continue to be based on CDBR as understood in the 1990s. According to Indian negotiator Ajay Mathur, “the differentiation was done for a very specific purpose. It was to make differentiation between those who are responsible for historic emissions and those who are not. That calculus and those numbers haven’t really changed. We don’t see why that concept should be swept under the carpet.”

What can we expect out of Paris talks, which wrap up Friday? The term CBDR is mentioned eight times in the draft treaty text released last weekend, but it is usually located in brackets, meaning it could be withdrawn from the final version.

Because countries are no longer divided into two groups with respect to their greenhouse gas reduction commitments, the natural place where countries might differentiate their responsibilities is on financing. The financing section, Article 6, is a tangle of brackets, however, with no clear indication of who is supposed to step up to provide billions in climate assistance. Some bracketed language indicates that the donors should be the developed nations as defined in the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change, but other language refers to all “parties in a position to do so.” The Unites States argues that the pool of potential donor nations is much larger now than in 1992.

CBDR is getting contentious because the club of rich nations has evolved over the past 25 years. China, a developing country and the world’s largest emitter, now holds $3.6 trillion in foreign exchange reserves and is the largest lender to the United States. Per capita income in some European countries, like Romania and Bulgaria, is now below that of nations considered to be developing, like Chile and Malaysia. The old divisions regarding who has responsibility and who needs assistance are getting blurred.

I suspect that the language of CBDR will be all over the final treaty text, but the meaning of CBDR after Paris is still up for grabs. 

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