Common but differentiated responsibilities and vulnerabilities to climate change

Until the oil crisis of the 1970s, global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions were mainly due to the energy consumption (mostly coal, oil and gas) of Members States of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which includes 36 developed countries in North America, Oceania, Europe and North East Asia. In 1973, before the first oil crisis, the OECD accounted for more than 60% of global final energy consumption and nearly two thirds of CO2 emissions from the energy sector. The OECD's shares of global energy consumption and CO2 emissions have since decreased (despite absolute growths) in parallel with the rapid economic emergence of a number of countries, particularly in Asia (China but also Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia, known as NPI - Newly Industrialized Countries).

Changes in energy related CO2 emissions since 197 1
Regional shares of final energy consumption and energy related CO2 emissions in 1973 and 2015 2

Since the mid-2000s - and even since the 1990s if land use, land-use change and forestry – LULUCF is included, the Parties listed in Annex I (including all but a few OECD countries) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have been emitting less GHGs than non-Annex I Parties, with a gap that is widening rapidly (the share of OECD countries in overall energy-related CO2 emissions could be reduced to less than 25% by 2040).

GHG emissions, Annex I vs non-Annex I, 1970-2008 3
Energy CO2 emissions per Regions in 2040 (projections of the International Energy Agency following different scenarios) 4

This reality undeniably calls for stronger mitigation actions by all countries, from both the OECD and the non-OECD. Still, several facts must be highlighted to contextualize historical responsibilities and current issues.

First, non-OECD countries represent a huge majority of the world's population (over 6 billion people) and absorb most of the population growth. Their per capita emissions are, on average, much lower than those of the industrialized countries, while socioeconomic development needs remain high.

tCO2 emissions per capita 1965-2017 5

In addition, considering the relatively long lifespan of GHGs in the atmosphere (over a hundred years for CO2), it is important to take into account also the cumulated historical emissions.

Cumulated CO2e emissions 1800-2010 6

When cumulated GHG emissions are accounted for, the share of Annex I Parties continues to be dominant since the industrial revolution (data stop in 2010, more recent graphs were not available at the time of writing).

Cumulated Kyoto GHG emissions per country since 1850 7

It thus seems logical that industrialized economies commit not only to mitigate their own emissions, but also to support developing countries so that they can cope with climate change. This is all the more crucial as these countries (particularly in North and Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and South-East Asia) remain the most vulnerable to the impacts of the phenomenon, be it raising water levels, extreme weather events, droughts and floods, warming temperatures, etc.

Levels of warming observed and projected over the period 1900 - 2100 8
Change in precipitation by the end of the century (inch of liquid water per year) 9
Change in percentage of population exposed to flooding in case of a warming exceeding 4°C (per country) 10
Drought risks in Africa and the Middle East 11
Deltas’ vulnerabilities to climate change 12
World’s hotspots to climate change (multi-criteria analysis – see reference, Figure 3, for methodological details) 13

Reflecting these realities into international negotiations: the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities

The Paris Climate Agreement recognizes development as a priority and highlights the necessity for industrialised countries to provide support to developing countries, whether it is finance, technology transfer or capacity building. For the latter countries and with regard to the rapid growth of their emissions, development and adaptation policies must be, as early and deeply as possible, low in carbon. The aim is here to consider the potential co-benefits of development policies in terms of mitigation, notably in the fields of agriculture, energy or building, cities and territories.

Historically, differentiation between industrialized and developing countries has been central to international negotiations.

From the start of the 1960s, the principle of differential treatment was at the heart of demands from developing countries in international negotiations, especially at the first United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) held in 1964 14 . This differentiation of obligations, taking into account specificities of countries labelled at the time under the term "Third World", enters the multilateral trading system (the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade - GATT) under the name differential and more favorable treatment.

The Rio Earth Summit in 1992 led to the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, which provides a conceptual framework that considers equity and the time dimension in responding to environmental challenges. Key principles framing the implementation of sustainable development include the principles of prevention and precaution, polluter pays, good neighborliness and friendly international cooperation, and common but differentiated responsibilities.

At the same conference, the UNFCCC is created, laying the foundation of an international climate action framework. Common but differentiated responsibilities are one of the founding principles of the UNFCCC, as mentioned in its preamble, which states that " change in the Earth’s climate and its adverse effects are a common concern of humankind" and that " the largest share of historical and current global emissions of greenhouse gases has originated in developed countries". This same preamble emphasizes that " that per capita emissions in developing countries are still relatively low" and that " sustained economic growth and the eradication of poverty" remain priority issues. As a result, developing countries cannot be subject to the same standards as industrialized countries and must be able to increase their emissions to meet their social and development needs.

Article 3 of the UNFCCC further states that " The Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. Accordingly, the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof." Reflecting this distinction, Signatories States of the UNFCCC (the Parties) are divided into two groups: industrialized countries or countries in transition to a market economy (Annex I further refined in Annex II countries) and the group of non-developed countries (non-Annex I). 15

The Kyoto Protocol, adopted at the Third Conference of the Parties (COP3) in 1997 and which entered into force in 2005, also reflects this founding principle. For the first commitment period (2008-2012), only Annex I countries are obliged to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions (by 5% compared to the 1990 baseline year). The developed countries listed in the Annex I should also support non-Annex I Parties through financial support and the transfer of capacities and technologies; an obligation not shared by the economies in transition (listed in Annex I but not in Annex II) 16

Negotiations for the post-Kyoto period then took place through two parallel processes, the Ad Hoc Working Group on Further Commitments for Annex I Parties under the Kyoto Protocol (AWG-KP process) set up in Montreal in 2005 and the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Long-term Cooperative Action under the Convention (AWG-LCA), a process associated with the Bali Action Plan adopted in 2007. It recalls the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, while considering mitigation commitments for developed countries but also actions to be implemented by developing countries.

With the rapid emergence of some economies, however, tensions arose between developed and developing countries around the principle of differentiated commitments. While non-Annex I Parties, taken as a whole, have emitted more than the Annex I Parties since the 2000s, the latter, primarily the United States, are calling for non-Annex I Parties to also commit to reducing their emissions. These tensions partly explain the failure of the negotiations for the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol (which was to cover the period 2013-2020) at the Copenhagen Conference held in 2009 (COP15). Everyone will remember that this conference only resulted in a non-binding political commitment.

It then became crucial to initiate a new process under the auspices of the UNFCCC, respecting the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, but still engaging all Parties. At COP17 in 2011 in Durban, South Africa, the special working group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP) was created. Its mandate was to " develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties, which is to be completed no later than 2015 in order for it to be adopted at the twenty-first session of the Conference of the Parties (COP) and for it to come into effect and be implemented from 2020”. This mandate is declined in two workstreams : 17

  • Workstreams 1, aiming the adoption of the new text applicable to all Parties in 2015, to come into force by 2020, and
  • Workstream 2, aiming to enhance Parties' mitigation ambition by 2020.

At COP19 in Warsaw (Poland) in 2013, the Parties agreed that their participation in the new agreement should take the form of self-determined commitments taking into account their national realities. These commitments had to be recorded in a framework document, called the Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC), to be submitted to the UNFCCC’s 18 Secretariat in 2015 prior to COP21. Of the 196 Parties to the UNFCCC, 187 19 had deposited their INDCs as of 22 December 2015, representing more than 97% of the world's population and more than 94% of global GHG emissions 20 . This bottom-up approach played a crucial role in the adoption of the Paris Agreement. It has also allowed each Party to modulate its climate commitments according to its national realities.

The Paris Agreement and Decision 1 / CP.21 to operationalize it subsequently laid the foundation for a new global organization in the fight against climate change. Adaptation and mitigation are taken into account within an inclusive approach, and the necessary mobilization of financial resources, in addition to technology transfer and capacity building actions, are clearly highlighted. It should be noted that since Copenhagen in 2009, the industrialized countries pledged to mobilize annually, starting in 2020, 100 billion USD per year to finance projects related to the fight against climate change in developing countries.

The Paris Agreement also reaffirms the priority of development through two specific points: universal access to energy, particularly in Africa (Preamble of Decision 1 / CP.21) through the deployment of renewable energies; and food security, which is recognized as a key priority in the preamble of the Agreement. Article 2 of the Paris Agreement also states that for the implementation of the Agreement should be be pursued in the context of sustainable development and the fight against poverty. 21

As of the 5th of October 2016, 191 Parties out of 197 to the UNFCCC had signed the Paris Agreement, and 72 Parties representing 56.75% of total global GHG emissions 22 had deposited their instrument of ratification, accession, acceptance or approval to the UNFCCC’s Secretariat. The entry into force of the Agreement, subject to its ratification by at least 55 Parties representing at least 55% of global greenhouse emissions, thus became effective on the 4th of November 2016 23, less than one year after its adoption.

A number of major challenges remains, first of all a lack of ambition. The overall ambition level is defined by adding the commitments contained in all the INDCs. These have become, since the entry into force of the Agreement and for Parties that have ratified it, Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). In other words, it is no more about intentions, but about concrete commitments. To date, all scientific studies agree that there is a significant gap between the commitments of the INDC / NDC and the objectives set in the Paris Agreement.

It is expected that Parties will update their NDCs by 2020 (and again by 2025, after the first Global Stocktake of 2023), with the obligation to revise their targets upwards. This process will be a crucial element in narrowing the gap between commitments and objectives. Beyond this lack of ambition, the absence of mechanisms to exert a real constraint on the Parties, the lack of concrete measures to ensure the reality of the means of implementation that will be made available to developing countries, or the lack of predictability of funding, are also among the main questions regarding the post-2020 international climate action regime.