Why Differentiation threatens to derail climate talks and weaken targets

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Differentiation was always going to be a key sticking point at COP21, but the discussions so far suggest that the issue could derail the talks altogether.

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Differentiation was always going to be a key sticking point at COP21, but the discussions so far suggest that the issue could derail the talks altogether.

What is differentiation?

At the core of the COP process is the idea that the world is split into rich and poor countries. The argument goes something like this: being largely responsible for the stock of troublesome CO2 in the atmosphere, the rich world should shoulder the lion’s share of the burden to reduce emissions, leaving room for poorer nations to emit more as they develop. Furthermore, rich countries should provide financial and technological assistance to developing countries to help them curb their emissions growth and adapt to the impacts of climate change.

Differentiation is enshrined in the ‘principles’ of the original 1992 UNFCCC agreement. This short passage may appear innocuous but it is the root cause of nearly 20 years of deadlock in the negotiations:

“on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR)… developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change” – Article 3.1 (UNFCCC, 1992)

Every COP outcome, most notably the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, is grounded in the ‘Annex I/Non-Annex I’ divide. In simple terms, ‘Non-Annex I’ developing countries have had a free pass, with no obligations placed on them to either report or reduce their emissions.
What is the problem with differentiation?

The rich/poor world split was decided in 1992 – of the 195 parties signed up to the UNFCCC, 43 are listed as developed, or ‘Annex I’ countries, with the rest listed as developing, or ‘Non-Annex I’. This is seen as outdated and irrelevant by the likes of the US and EU, whereas the developing-country bloc is unsurprisingly trying to hold on to the status quo.

    • The US is most vehement among developed countries in its position on differentiation, stating that it “would not support a bifurcated approach to the new agreement, particularly one based on groupings that may have made sense in 1992 but that are clearly not rational or workable in the post‐2020 era”.

 

    • India and China take a rather different view. India’s Prime Minister stated on Monday that CBDR must be “the bedrock of all elements of a Paris outcome, anything else is morally wrong”, and China’s position is that the Paris outcome “shall be in full accordance with the principles and provisions of the Convention, in particular CBDR”.

 

It is hard to not sympathise with the US position. In the early 90s, China’s GDP was less than that of Canada, Spain or the UK, and its emissions were half that of the US. India was a mid-sized economy ranked only 15th in the world with emissions below that of Germany. Fast forward to today and China and India are the world’s first and third biggest emitters respectively. So is it time to break with the old ‘Annex I/non-Annex I’ split?

The retort from the developing world is that ‘Non-Annex I’ countries are still relatively poor, and that on a per capita basis their emissions remain low. China and India together are home to over one third of humanity, so of course they will be among the world’s top emitters. Furthermore, many ‘Non-Annex I’ countries are simply not ready to prioritise emission reductions ahead of poverty alleviation and raising living standards. India in particular is able to make this case, with around a quarter of its population (300 million people) living below the poverty line.
Is there a way forward on the issue of differentiation?

Potentially not. In their introductory speeches, leaders from across the developing world, not least Prime Minister Modi, demanded that CBDR remain be at the heart of any agreement in Paris. The language being used in the plenary indicates a hardening of positions that may be impossible to overcome in Paris.

A further complication is the woefully inadequate delivery of the $100bn/yr by 2020 climate finance pledge made by ‘Annex I’ countries at COP15 in 2009. Developing countries are demanding that the rich world pay up before they soften their position on differentiation.


What is the worst case scenario?

Developing countries throw their toys out of the pram and block a new deal. This would force the ADP programme to be extended until COP22, with all key elements of a new deal, apart from the INDCs, remaining unresolved.

What is the most likely outcome?

The ADP co-chairs nip the issue in the bud, crafting wording that effectively sweeps differentiation under the carpet – explicitly mentioning CBDR but also emphasising the need for ‘flexibility’ with regards to targets and transparency. This may weaken the deal and in particular the proposals to have a regular review of targets, but should keep both sides happy for now. Importantly, developing countries will retain the ability to dig in their heels on differentiation after COP21.

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