On 12 December, 196 countries endorsed a legally binding agreement in Paris to keep temperature rise of the planet “well below two degrees”. Though the deal passes off as a historic decision acceptable to all countries, there is no denying that the developed countries have managed to evade taking any responsibility for damage already done to the environment since the industrial revolution in the West.
In the course of the two-week-long talks, three major contentions persisted: the question of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ (CBDR) or respective capabilities (RC), finance and ‘ambition’ (emission control targets).
In a first, the CBDR principle, which is enshrined in the United Nations Framework of Climate Change, found its place officially in a climate deal. Though the principle finds mention in the Paris agreement, the document also states that the principle was included “in the light of different national circumstances”, thereby subtly replacing “historical responsibility’ with “national circumstances”. “Thus, equity and inclusion, though mentioned, has not been operationalised,” says Rakesh Kamal, who works on climate change issues at the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a New Delhi-based research and advocacy organisation.
The CBDR principle — those who historically contributed the most to climate change should commit more in terms of reducing emissions — is diluted in the clause that absolves the developed world from compensating for the loss and damage suffered by the developing nations. This clause states that the loss and damage due to climate change “does not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation”. By overlooking the loss that the developing world has incurred so far due to rise in temperature (for which the developed world is largely responsible), the decade-long demand for equity has been undermined.
“The phrase ‘historical responsibility’ has been erased from the agreement and this weakens the obligations of developed countries to take actions to make up for their past emissions,” said cse deputy director general Chandra Bhushan in a statement. “Without historical responsibility, equity will now be interpreted only through the words ‘respective capabilities and national circumstances’ further removing differentiation between the climate actions of developed and developing countries.”
The Obama administration even hailed the ‘common but differentiated responsibility’ included in the Paris deal as a “forward-looking concept” that was a “very big deal”. The reason being that the new differentiated responsibility concept does not account for the historical role of developed countries in global carbon emissions.
The silver lining is in the very inclusion of ‘equity’ in the agreement, urging the developed countries to “continue taking the lead by undertaking economy-wide absolute emission reduction targets”. “With the deal, we have finally got to the stage where there are no more excuses for the developed world, they have run out of excuses,” says Arunabha Ghosh, CEO of Council on Energy, Environment and Water, an environmental think tank.
On the complex issue of finance, developed countries have been urged to provide at least $100 billion annually from 2020, while developing countries are asked to contribute as per their capabilities. As only the minimum amount has been fixed, the deal actually suggests that the rich nations should increase their contribution as it would help the poorer countries take substantive action on climate change.