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Carbon Brief Staff

20.11.2013 | 2:30pm
ScienceThe UN climate talks have a responsibility problem
SCIENCE | November 20. 2013. 14:30
The UN climate talks have a responsibility problem

A group of 133 developing countries walked out of the COP 19 climate talks in Warsaw in the early hours this morning. They disagree with developed countries’ stance on compensation claims for the effects of climate-linked problems – a disagreement intensified by the typhoon that ravaged the Philippines just as talks began. At the heart of the debate lie divides between richer and poorer countries over who must do most to tackle climate change – and who’s going to stump up the most cash to pay for action.

Diplomats and ministers are gearing up for the high level sessions that will set the course for the the 2015 negotiations in Paris, when countries hope to reach a new global deal to replace the existing treaty after 2020. An agreement on how far developing countries should cut their emissions – and to what extent developed nations must finance mitigation and adaptation measures – is vital to that effort.

The 2009 talks in Copenhagen were derailed by arguments over whether developing countries should sign up to emissions targets when richer countries have failed to live up to their own promises. The responsibility question looks set to complicate the path to a 2015 agreement in Paris. The argument centres around three connected issues: The differentiation between developed and developing countries, how richer nations will provide $100 billion a year of climate finance, and how to integrate disaster compensation – or loss and damage – into the climate framework.

Responsibility: past and present

After a draft of the Warsaw decisions came out on Monday, Indian national newspaper, The Hindu, reports that talks between developed and developing countries stalled. The reason? The continuing problem of who’s most responsible for climate change. While the EU, US, Australia and Canada argued developing countries are now just as responsible for greenhouse gas emissions, the Like-Minded Developing Countries –  a group that includes India and China – believe the current principles on responsibility should be preserved.

The existing agreement, known as the Kyoto Protocol – reached in 1997 and in effect until 2020 – committed signatories to a central target for emissions reductions, shared out amongst the industrialised countries primarily blamed for causing climate change. Poorer countries, historically responsible for far fewer greenhouse gas emissions, were not subject to the same obligations.

But the push for developing countries’ growing emissions to be recognised within the UN talks has grown among developed nations as countries like China and India have boomed – with increasing carbon footprints to match. So while developing nations argue emissions cuts should be based on the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the developed world says in the long term, targets should be based on current levels.

The debate on historical responsibility is another evolution of the divide between developing and developed countries, Jonathan Grant, a director at consultancy firm PwC tells Carbon Brief. As countries have developed, so have the metrics for comparing levels of responsibility. He explains:

“At the time of the Kyoto protocol, debate over responsibility focused on current emissions. But as emerging economies’ emissions have risen, the debate has shifted to per capita emissions – and now, historical emissions. It is an approach to pushing on ambition from different countries.”

Grant says by the 2020s, developing countries’ historical emissions are expected to have caught up with those of the developed world. The deal expected to replace Kyoto reflects this thinking. It probably won’t make the same distinctions between richer and poorer – although different countries are recognised as bearing different levels of responsibility for climate change.

A “looser agreement” is now emerging for the new deal, according to the BBC. This will allow countries to set their own targets, but subject them to some review by other countries. Brazil has proposed a  mechanism for deciding responsibility, basing responsibility on a historical – but sources say few are keen on the idea.

Responsibility is the crux of the debate between developed and developing countries. But from that stem two related points of contention: finance, and loss and damage.


Developed countries agreed in 2009 to raise $100 billion a year to help developing countries reduce their emissions. But at present, there is no firm detail on how this will happen. Today will see a high level ministerial on finance, which could result in some announcements on finance agreements.

Liz Gallagher, from environmental advocacy group E3G, says agreements in this area could unlock discussions on increasing ambition in developing countries before 2020. Says Gallagher:

“We still have no guarantee of how developed countries will contribute to the $100 billion in support for developing countries promised at Copenhagen. But this will be the key to unlocking movement towards more ambition from developing countries and getting greater clarity on what the 2015 agreement will look like.”

There are a few countries with the potential to influence this balancing act. Gallagher explains that the US’s recent progress in making climate policies at home has given it new legitimacy as a leader in the talks – it has skin in the game. Indeed, chief negotiator, Todd Stern, announced on Monday that the US is already thinking about how to cut its emissions after 2020. It, along with the EU, will be key to unlocking predictable finance for developing countries and eliciting greater ambition in return, she says.

But on the other side, Australia, Japan and – to the surprise of many – Brazil have started to push back on several important issues. All three are against preparing their offers for a 2015 deadline for an agreement, which they had previously signed up to at talks in Durban.

Such talk is hardly likely to encourage developing countries to increase their ambition. Gallagher says that in weakening the the 2015 agreement, these countries are renegotiating the successful outcome at Durban. If that happens, she says, “everything would go back to square one”.

Loss and damage

This year’s talks began on a sombre note:  just before they commenced, Typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines. Head of the country’s delegation, Yeb Sano, linked the devastation caused to climate change, and vowed to go on hunger strike at the talks until progress is made.

The disaster has set the tone for difficult talks – happening in parallel to the main climate negotiations – over how compensation for climate-linked events might come into force has polarised the parties.

The G77 group of countries and China walked out of discussions at 3.30 this morning after developed countries said they did not want a mechanism for loss and damage to be included in the Warsaw agreement.

Instead, The Hindu reports, a briefing document prepared by the US suggests loss and damage should be included in current funding to aid countries in adapting to climate change – and not exist as a separate system to pay compensation to poorer countries. The schism over loss and damage looks to be hardening existing positions and damaging the prospect for a clear roadmap to an agreement in Paris. One G77 delegate told the newspaper: “Everything clears together or nothing moves at all”.

As Galllagher notes:

“Talks are at a critical stage as ministers arrive. The lack of guarantees from developed countries on the delivery $100 bn of climate finance promised in Copenhagen, compounded by devastation in Haiyan, and the roll back from Japan and Australia is jeopardising progress on securing the foundations of the 2015 agreement.  Paris is looking problematic before it’s even begun.”

COP 19 isn’t over yet, but to create a stepping stone toward a new deal in 2015, countries will have to begin resolving their responsibility problem.

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