Common But Differentiated Responsibility in Addressing Climate Change

    • By,
      Amulya Reddy – Intern, Kautilya

The whole world benefited from globalisation; it made a borderless world and gave us many things and opportunities. Products travel halfway across the globe to reach consumers. People travel through modern transportation to every corner of the world. Perhaps the only and most hazardous implication of such progress is climate change. The farther a product or human travels, the more energy they consume. Energy derived from fossil fuels results in emissions. The consequences of little luxuries are exponential.

It is a global challenge, and its consequences affect all countries. The Kyoto Protocol is an international treaty adopted in Kyoto, Japan, on 7 December 1997 and entered into force on 16 February 2005. The notion of “common but differentiated responsibilities” is the basis of the Protocol. The Protocol places a higher responsibility on industrialised countries, recognising that they are primarily responsible for the current high levels of Greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere as a result of more than 150 years of economic activity. They are to give financial resources to developing countries in order for them to engage in emission reduction initiatives, as well as develop and transfer environment-friendly technologies to developing countries.

The concept of Common but Differentiated responsibility was formally acknowledged in 1992 at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio De Janeiro. Environmental degradation is a common obligation that speaks to every state, but the responsibility that every state bears in order to help the situation varies not only depending on their contributions to the crisis in the first place but also on their ability to expend resources. A country like Australia can spend its resources on finding sustainable solutions to environmental degradation, and researching and harnessing clear sources of energy, but a country like Sudan can at the most record its data. A country like Sudan is also so underdeveloped that it doesn’t leave any carbon footprint. People don’t own a lot of vehicles, and there’s no proper modern transportation or roads for connectivity. They produce so little they can’t export. What they need to import they can’t afford. There’s little to no industrialisation. Given all of these facts, it would be unfair for a country like this to contribute to a universal fund or take measures to curb climate change internally. Weighing all of these determinants, a common solution is not an option. Common but differentiated responsibility holds everyone accountable but gives enough leeway for states to act independently within the framework of the goals set every 5 years to achieve the maximum amount of efficiency.

Every country is not asked to act the same. Instead, every country is asked to act to the best of its abilities. This is the ever-controversial, supposedly fair and easily exploitable principle of equity.

This simple picture illustrates equity, not equality of opportunity but equality of outcome. Doing everything one can possibly do with their means, however humble or grand they might be, to ensure we curb climate change and cap it off is equity. We want a clean and sustainable earth, and giving every country a neat sheet of the same required things to do to achieve that is a pipedream.

If any international organisation gave a universal standard set of measures that need to be taken by every state regardless of its development or economic status, underdeveloped countries struggling to bring their people out of poverty would give this crisis a backseat and would do nothing at all and developed countries with advanced technology and resources would do whatever is required and call it a day. Developed countries have the capability to take on the task of reducing emissions. If not asked to utilise these capacities, their resources would languish, which would prove useful to no one. The wide differences in the economic development of different states make it impossible for everyone to expend the same resources to fight for this cause.

Another equally important argument is the fact that developed countries cause (or caused) relatively more environmental degradation than underdeveloped countries. Development meant industrial revolutions, and industrial revolution meant environmental degradation. There was also very little awareness, and many disruptive advancements were invented without understanding any real ramifications. Developing nations have rapidly increasing amounts of greenhouse gasses. Industrialised nations reach a peak, and from that point on, their emissions decrease. It is widely believed that for a nation to start decreasing its emissions, it first has to reach its peak and go steadily, decreasing its anthropogenic emissions over periods of 5 years till there is a 10% reduction compared to its peak. This is called Peaking, and for this to happen, development should be the first priority.

Climate change’s consequences have already been seen around the world, and they are projected to worsen as global temperatures rise. As sea levels rise, ice sheets and glaciers are fast meltings, forcing low-lying populations to relocate and jeopardising water supplies for millions of people. Though every country in the world recognises the seriousness of the situation, there is a conflict of interest between developed and developing countries in terms of the measures that each group must take to alleviate the detrimental effects of global warming.

The debate of whether the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” is fair has been going on for quite some time now, and developing, and developed countries are sparring as to who is responsible instead of taking any real action and working towards a better future. Debates like these steal the attention away from the matter at hand, making us forget the grave situation all of us are in. Instead of trying to determine who is the most to blame, counties can try to work together and do whatever is possible to curb this crisis. If not taken seriously, the consequences of our mindless disputes disguised as negotiations and deliberations will have solemn consequences.

*The Kautilya School of Public Policy (KSPP) takes no institutional positions. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s) and do not reflect the views or positions of KSPP.