The 17th Conference of Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was convened in Durban when the membership of this multilateral body faced two exceptional challenges. First, a critical component of the convention, the Kyoto Protocol, under which industrialized countries took binding commitments to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, is completing the first period of implementation at the end of next year. In the absence of any agreement among the UNFCCC members, the global community would have lost the first and only opportunity that it has had to address the scourge of global warming through a multilaterally negotiated process. The second was a stern message sent out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the agency that provides assessments of the risks arising from the risk of climate change. In its special report on managing the risks of extreme events and disasters to advance climate change adaptation, IPCC warned that as the earth’s temperature rises, the likelihood of extreme weather conditions will also increase.
The Durban COP thus has very little option but to deliver on the pledge the UNFCCC members had taken to ameliorate the threats posed by global warming. But here lay the challenge from within: disagreements between the industrialized countries and the emerging economies such as India and China on their respective responsibilities to address this challenge have been brimming over. This debate took place even when an overwhelming mass of scientific evidence clearly indicated as to what the emissions reductions approach should be.
IPCC scientists have said that in order to limit global warming to a maximum of two degrees over the pre-industrial times (pre-1750s), it is necessary that atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases does not exceed 445-490 parts per million (ppm) in terms of carbon dioxide equivalent. By 2006, the concentration of greenhouse gases had already reached 382 ppm, by IPCC estimates. As most of these greenhouse gases can stay in the atmosphere for several decades or even centuries, the current stock of greenhouse gases has been present ever since the advanced economies began their intensive phase of industrialization. It, therefore, goes without saying that the responsibility of reducing the future emissions of these gases must be borne differentially: developed countries must take the burden of reduction more than the rest.
Indeed, the UNFCCC underlined the imperative for the members to “protect the climate system for the benefit of the present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” while spelling out its core principles. The convention, therefore, provided that developed countries “should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof”. In keeping with these principles, developing countries were provided the flexibility to pursue their development priorities since the convention recognized that “economic development is essential for adopting measures to address climate change”.
The principles of “common but differentiated responsibilities”, the basis for UNFCCC signatories to take commitments for reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases, seem to have been jolted through the outcomes of Durban COP. The agreed outcome of the COP was the launch of the “Durban Platform for Enhanced Action”, “a process to develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the convention applicable to all parties to the UNFCCC”.
It is the reference to “all parties to the UNFCCC” in the “Durban Platform” that has been interpreted by several commentators as a departure from the principles of “common but differentiated responsibilities”. In this context, it needs to be pointed out that the European Union, one of the strong votaries of the position that all countries should take commitments, has argued that the “Durban Platform” has indeed been an outcome that meets its key demand. India, on the other hand, has maintained that the new protocol “will be designed under the existing convention and will hence be subject to the relevant principles and provisions of the convention, including the principles of equity and the common but differentiated responsibilities”. Clearly, India has its work cut out to ensure that the post-Durban confabulations do not result in the abandonment of the core principles of the convention.
The “Durban Outcome” also marked the beginning of the end of the process that was launched in the 13th COP in Bali for developing the post-Kyoto Protocol framework for the reduction of emissions. The collective will of the developing countries had ensured then that the “Bali Action Plan” reflected the spirit of the convention: the differentiated responsibilities of UNFCCC parties.
The extension of the Kyoto Protocol beyond its first period of implementation at the end of next year has at best received a lukewarm response from the developed countries. Although there was a commitment to initiate the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol by some protocol parties, notably the European Union, the announcements by Canada, Japan and Russia not to take any further commitments under the protocol could affect the ability of the convention to find a lasting solution for the problem of global warming.
Biswajit Dhar is director general at Research and Information System for Developing Countries, New Delhi
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