A new interpretation of “Common but Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities”

If you take a real bird’s-eye view of the climate negotiations – one in which only the largest features are visible – then you might say that they began in earnest with 1992’s negotiation of the U.N.’s Framework Convention on Climate Change.  The next big event was the Kyoto Protocol, which was agreed in 1997.  Then came Copenhagen in 2009 and the following daze, which finally lifted in late 2011 with the Durban Platform, which provided for “a Protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force, applicable to all countries” to be negotiated by 2015 and to go into effect in 2020.

Those negotiations are now proceeding in earnest, and they’re taking place within civil society networks as well. One of those networks, the most established and extensive of all those working within the climate talks, is the international Climate Action Network, which consists of over 700 NGOs from around the world.  And CAN, as it is called, has now agreed on its own positions, which will be the basis of its lobbying and outreach as we approach the big year 2015.  These positions are represented by two “submissions” to the UNFCCC secretariat.  The submission to “Workstream 1” (which covers the post-2020 regime that is now being negotiated) is here.  The submission to “Workstream 2” (which covers the effort to increase ambition prior to 2020) is here.

The news, for all you climate-justice mavens, is in the Workstream 1 submission, which starts right off with the equity issue.  Specifically, it outlines the core equity principles that are embodied in the Convention, and then proceeds to give, in 399 words, a “New Interpretation of CBDRRC.”

To wit:

“CAN believes that the ADP negotiations (the post Durban round of talks) can only succeed if they reaffirm, and embody, the principles of differentiated responsibility and capability, as well as other key equity principles and goals like “equitable access to sustainable development.” As a step towards that end, CAN calls upon the Parties to consider a new, dynamic, principle- and indicator-driven interpretation of “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.”

More precisely, CAN believes that the Parties should seek a new approach to global differentiation that is transparently based upon explicit and clearly-stated equity principles, and upon indicators that embody those principles. Not that such an approach can alone define national obligations. But it can productively inform the negotiations, and it can help to shape a common understanding – a shared vision – of the equity challenge.

Parties should consider various approaches. One possibility is a hierarchical approach in which the existing annexes are reworked and then subdivided into finer annexes. Another is a spectrum approach in which all countries are assigned values on an agreed equity index. What is critical is that the equity principles that underlie any proposed approach be specified, embodied in well-designed indicators, and used to estimate a set of national obligations – for both mitigation and international financial and technical support.

In the spectrum approach, the “equity index” would be composed of a basket of more specific equity indictors. This basket would have to contain well-designed indicators that, taken together, measure both responsibility and capacity. It could include, inter alia, measures of per capita income, measures of per capita emissions, measures of standards of living, measures of historical responsibility, and measures of intranational income inequality.

Such an approach would not preclude country groupings (like today’s annexes). In fact, it would make such groupings more coherent. For example, the set of countries that is high in capacity and responsibility would change over time – an important fact, given that such countries are candidates for ambitious, legally-binding economy-wide quantified emissions reduction targets.

Of course many other kinds of commitments are also possible, and desirable. Obvious examples include renewable energy and/or energy efficiency targets and sectoral targets, all of which could have various kinds and degrees of bindingness. Also, it should be noted that some kinds of actions – for example, nationally-appropriate mitigation actions – can be explicitly contingent on financial and technical support.

Finally, it must be said that all commitments and actions should be amenable to measurement.”

I’m not going to give an exegesis of this text, at least not here.  Nor am I going to discuss the politics that swirl around it, or the questions that had to be resolved – within CAN’s “effort sharing working group” – before it could be agreed.  What I am going to say is that this text was not redlined by any CAN member.  And that, once again, it shows that the people are ahead of the governments.

Are the Durban-track negotiations (known as the ADP track) going to deliver the fair and ambitious global climate accord that we need? Not a chance.  But if we are smart, and if we are very, very lucky, they may well deliver increased finance and technology support for the developing countries, and increased mitigation ambition around the world, and a dynamic and principle-based differentiation architecture that is accepted as the way forward.

–          Tom Athanasiou