Our Common But Differentiated Responsibility Concerning Climate Change

Is it fair for ‘developing’ countries to pollute more than ‘developed’ countries?

The notion of ‘common but differentiated responsibility’ (CBDR) emerged as a pillar of environmental law to equitably delineate political responsibilities in regards to made-made climate change.[1] Though the notion of CBDR does have merits, this post will utilize the concept of solidarity, as expanded by Angela Williams, to argue that current interpretations of the CBDR are not just, even on their own terms. Due to the CBDRs disregard for future sources of pollution and its emphasis on pollution-driven development, it has not yet proven to be an effective framework to address the adverse impacts of climate change, and further threatens to create future climate insecurity.[2]

Common but differentiated responsibility

Concerns over the pollution of greenhouses-gases (carbon dioxide, CFCs, and methane) into the atmosphere, began to emerge as a political and international concern in the early 1970’s and has become a controversial topic within the international community, and also a sensitive area for governments globally, since.[3] These discussions began following warnings from the scientific community, alerting that the emission of greenhouses-gasses through industrial processes, such as energy production, transport, and agriculture, have resulted in a build-up of dense greenhouse-gasses in the atmosphere, which trap heat that would have otherwise escaped back into space.[4] This gradually warms the temperate of the earth, leading to changes in the climate; this process has been referred to as climate change.

greenhouse-effect

The threats of climate change however, over 40 years on, have not been resolved, with surface temperatures of the earth projected to rise over the twenty-first century.[5] It is expected most likely for heat waves of greater intensity and duration to occur, while the oceans warm, and acidify, and sea levels continue to rise.[6] With the threats which climate change poses to human security accelerating, many scholars have begun to analyse how climate change law itself has been either ineffectual in addressing climate change, or further produces social and economic insecurity through its measures.[7]

Williams has critiqued the transition environmental law has made from ideas of solidarity towards a greater emphasis on the individual responsibility, arguing this has further entrenched environmental insecurities, and additionally is ineffectual in attending to the causes of climate change.[8] This can be exemplified through the concept of ‘common but differentiated responsibility’ (CBDR).

The first aspect of the CBDR is borrowed from the concept of “common concern” and “common heritage.”[9] The climate is seen as a ‘commons’ which humankind collectively share, use and depend upon. Thus we also have a common responsibility to cooperate, for example through intergovernmental instruments, to protect the climate. CBDR recognizes that climate change is transnational in nature, in that it affects all parts of the globe and thus requires global cooperation to resolve.[10]

CBDR further aims to recognize the differentiated historical responsibilities in the emissions of greenhouse gases. Developed nations have disproportionately contributed to emission of pollutants which are now showing their ecological impact in the form of climate change.[11] This has particularly been since the Industrial Revolution, as industrialized nation-states have advanced their economies and societies through processes depending on the pollution of greenhouse-gases.[12] The industrialized nations also now have a greater capacity to respond to the challenges posed by climate change, which they are also more responsible in producing; yet developing countries do not share this same level of responsibility nor capacity to respond to the adverse effects of climate change.[13] Due to these common but differentiated responsibilities, CBDR emphasizes that developed countries should take the lead in setting environmental standards and reducing their emissions before developing nation-states are asked to follow.[14]

*Country sizes show CO₂ emissions from energy use 1850–2011. These historical (or 'cumulative') emissions remain relevant because CO₂ can remain in the air for centuries. Europe and the US dominate, having released around half the CO₂ ever emitted.

*Country sizes show CO₂ emissions from energy use 1850–2011. These historical (or ‘cumulative’) emissions remain relevant because CO₂ can remain in the air for centuries. Europe and the US dominate, having released around half the CO₂ ever emitted.

CBDR, however, has many ambiguities which have resulted in controversy over its interpretation and application.[15] These tensions in interpreting CBDR became controversial following the first intergovernmental efforts at dealing with climate change, along with other environmental issues – the Stockholm Conference in 1972. Stockholm is seen to have brought greater international attention on environmental issues as common responsibilities, yet conferences post-Stockholm have made a gradual shift away from commonality of responsibilities and towards greater emphasis on differentiated responsibilities.[16]

There are five near globally participated multilateral environmental agreements which utilized CBDR: Montreal Protocol; the Convention on Biological Diversity; the Framework Convention on Climate Change (“FCCC”); and the Convention to Combat Desertification; the principal has also been reaffirmed through other environmental agreements.[17]

CBDR was used in these protocols to argue that it would be unfair to expect or enforce targets for reducing emissions of greenhouse-pollutants on developing countries, as the development of industrialized nations were not hampered by such constraints.[18] CBDR was seen not only as equitable but also pragmatic, as eliminating any substantial commitments for developing nations would incentivize their participation.[19] It was assumed this would facilitate the initial phase of increasing global dialogue, scientific understandings, and cooperation around climate change.[20] Developed nations were set non-legally binding targets to reduce emissions by, and under protocols such as the FCCC developed countries further set commitments to transfer technology and financial resources to developing nation-states.[21]

However, CBDR has been criticized as “backward-looking” as it does not consider emissions of emerging economies yet only the existing stock built predominantly from the US and Europe’s industrialization, and thus does not consider emissions which will occur in the future.[22] The emissions from emerging economies, which are deemed developing, itself is a climate concern, as even if all developed nations achieved carbon-free status the emissions from developing countries could increase global greenhouse-gas concentrations by eighteen percent over sixty years; this contribution from the developing world alone threatens to greatly aggravating climate changes calamitous effects.[23] This highlights there is indeed a necessity for greater global solidarity over our common yet differentiated responsibilities over greenhouse-gas pollution.

Because of being “backword-looking” It may be argued that the CBDR is currently equitable, yet ineffective if it is to be utilized to address climate change. The CBDR further beg the question of what these common yet differentiated responsibilities should be if global cooperation to address climate change is to be both equitable and effective. Moving towards global reductions of greenhouse-pollutants may seem fairer than allowing developing nations to pollute, as even developing nations have become significant contributors to climate change. This is not to pose that it would be fair to place emission restrictions on emerging economies, such as China, which would hinder their development. China still displays greater levels of poverty than industrialized countries, has low per capita emissions and is not largely responsible for existing stocks of greenhouse-gases.[24]

Yet we must problematize the manner in which a transition to ‘pollution-free’ modes of development have not been considered and outlined, yet modes of development through pollution continue to be assumed by the CBDR. A continuation of the CBDR in this manner only allows emissions to continue into the future which undermines climate change efforts in general, creating greater insecurity globally.[25] Thus the manner in which the CBDR has been adopted does not reflect the realization of common responsibilities to protect the climate, nor an adequate differentiation in responsibilities. Nor does it bring us closer to understanding what these responsibilities should be, in a manner which effectively addresses climate change. As developing nations and citizens of the developing world are the most vulnerable to adverse effects of climate change,[26] there is also paradox in allowing developing nations to pollute on grounds of ‘fairness,’ as they will continue to be disproportionately and unfairly affected by the impacts of this pollution.

*Country sizes show the number of people injured, left homeless, displaced or requiring emergency assistance due to floods, droughts or extreme temperatures in a typical year. Climate change is expected to exacerbate many of these threats.

Commitments of greater cooperation in technological and financial assistance for developing states shows great prospects for initiating moves towards sustainable technology and sustainable development. In order to build low-carbon economies which are not dependent upon greenhouse-gas pollution for development, and economies which recognize their common yet differentiated responsibilities, it is crucial they are assisted in such ways.[27] Yet these commitments which were outlined in FCCC remain ambiguous, have been given no legal foundation, and have not been elaborated on in regards to the extent of assistance which developing nations should be provided.[28] Should they be expanded on and undertaken, the transferals of sustainable technologies for sustainable development may show greater willingness of CBDR interpretations to recognize our common but differentiated responsibilities concerning climate change, to work in solidarity towards finding new modes of development which are sustainable and effective in resolve threats concerning climate change.

Conclusion

CBDR has been a contested concept since its emergence in environmental law. The ambiguity of the concept has left little responsibility being taken by the international community in solidarity, and has further promoted controversy. CBDR can be a useful framework in recognizing different levels of responsibility and capacity to react to climate change. Yet due to the environmental impacts the emissions of emerging economies will have in the future, current interpretations of the CBDR do not seem fair on their own their own standards .The CBDR has not yet provided a framework for addressing our common responsibility over the climate, nor presented what these responsibilities could practically be even on differentiated terms. Thus as a framework to overcome global challenges, the application of CBDR has currently been ineffective and threatens to further aggravate climate insecurities as opposed to resolving them.

Bibliography

[1] M Ruxandra et al., “The “Common but Differentiated Responsibility” Viewed as a Soft Law Instrument and Its Reflection in Some International Environmental Acts,” Advances in Environmental Sciences 5, no. 1 (2013): 10. Accessed October 5, 2015. http://www.aes.bioflux.com.ro/docs/2013.10-14.pdf

[2] Mary J Bortscheller, “Equitable but Ineffective: How the Principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities Hobbles the Global Fight against Climate Change,” Sustainable Development Law & Policy 10, no. 2 (2010): 51-52. Accessed October 5, 2015. http://heinonline.org/HOL/LandingPage?handle=hein.journals/sdlp10&div=38&id=&page=

[3] See more: Kelly-Kate Pease, International Organizations (United States: Pearson, 2012), 232-254.

[4] Jenny Edkins and Maja Zehfuss. Global Politics: A New Introduction. (London: Routledge, 2009.) 52.

[5] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. (2015): 57. Accessed October 5, 2015. http://ar5-syr.ipcc.ch/ipcc/ipcc/resources/pdf/IPCC_SynthesisReport.pdf

[6] Ibid., 58.

[7] Angela Williams, “Climate Change Law: Creating and Sustaining Social and Economic Insecurity,” Social & Legal Studies 20, no. 4 (2011): 507. DOI: 10.1177/0964663911414240

[8] Ibid., 508.

[9] Rachel Boyte, “Common but Differentiated Responsibilities: Adjusting the ‘Developing’ / ‘Developed’ Dichotomy in International Environmental Law,” New Zealand Journal of Environmental Law 14, no. 2010 (2010): 66. Accessed October 5, 2015. http://connection.ebscohost.com/c/articles/59973930/common-but-differentiated-responsibilities-adjusting-the-developing-developed-dichotomy-international-environmental-law

[10] Williams, “Climate Change Law: Creating and Sustaining Social and Economic Insecurity,” 503.

[11] Paul Harris, “Common but Differentiated Responsibility: The Kyoto Protocol and United States Policy,” New York University Environmental Law Journal 7, no. 1 (1999): 28. Accessed October 5, 2015. https://litigation-essentials.lexisnexis.com/webcd/app?action=DocumentDisplay&crawlid=1&doctype=cite&docid=7+N.Y.U.+Envtl.+L.J.+27&srctype=smi&srcid=3B15&key=8eae4d35bf0d92e1c008414678f4c61c

[12] Edkins and Zehfuss, Global Politics: A New Introduction, 51

[13] Harris, “Common but Differentiated Responsibility: The Kyoto Protocol and United States Policy,” 28.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Boyte, “Common but Differentiated Responsibilities: Adjusting the ‘Developing’ / ‘Developed’ Dichotomy in International Environmental Law,” 69.

[16] Ibid., 68.

[17] Ibid., 65-66.

[18] Harris, “Common but Differentiated Responsibility: The Kyoto Protocol and United States Policy,” 32.

[19] Boyte, “Common but Differentiated Responsibilities: Adjusting the ‘Developing’ / ‘Developed’ Dichotomy in International Environmental Law,” 74.

[20] Ruxandra et al., “The “Common but Differentiated Responsibility” Viewed as a Soft Law Instrument and Its Reflection in Some International Environmental Acts,” 12.

[21] Boyte, “Common but Differentiated Responsibilities: Adjusting the ‘Developing’ / ‘Developed’ Dichotomy in International Environmental Law,” 73.

[22] Bortscheller, “Equitable but Ineffective: How the Principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities Hobbles the Global Fight against Climate Change,” 51. http://heinonline.org/HOL/LandingPage?handle=hein.journals/sdlp10&div=38&id=&page=

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., 50.

[25] Ibid., 51.

[26] Boyte, “Common but Differentiated Responsibilities: Adjusting the ‘Developing’ / ‘Developed’ Dichotomy in International Environmental Law,” 74.

[27] Williams, “Climate Change Law: Creating and Sustaining Social and Economic Insecurity,” 507.

[28] Ibid.

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