Home >opinion >online-views >Opinion| Must developing nations pay for the sin of others?

Will developing countries continue to pay for the sins they had not committed? Perhaps it is the case with major international agreements. Whether it is climate change or global trade, the burden-sharing commitments for addressing the existential challenges of the 21st century are invariably tilted. “Developing countries are not comfortable or happy…we need to see if developed countries have honoured their commitments (because) still some countries have not started their mitigation efforts, or provided financial support (to poor nations)," Xie Zhenhua, China’s chief negotiator, said two days before the curtains came down on the 24th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP24) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) in Katowice, Poland.

The COP24 was tasked to frame rules that will govern the world’s most ambitious climate pact reached in Paris three years ago, in 2015. After struggling day and night for two weeks, 195 countries finalized a “rule book" for the Paris Agreement of 2015 on 15 December. As part of the agreement, countries had committed to keep global warming “well below" 2°C relative to the pre-industrial revolution, and preferably within 1.5°C.

“Climate change is running faster than we are," said United Nations secretary general Antonio Guterres last week. “This will allow us to have a regime that is fair and effective for all," he emphasized. “Climate change is the greatest challenge of mankind, in front of it no country is spared, and destinies are shared," argued Zhenhua.

But the final deal reached in Katowice was a compromise between the world’s three largest polluters—the US, the European Union, and China—according to a report in the Financial Times on 16 December. The three leading CO2 emitters had agreed to harmonize rules for measuring and reporting their climate targets for limiting global warming to well below 2°C.

Effectively, the new agreement seems to have put paid to one of the most fundamental principles of climate change negotiations–that is, common but differentiated responsibilities between the developing countries on the one hand, and the developed countries on the other, due to historical responsibility of developed countries for their past emissions.

The Kyoto Protocol, which was agreed in 1992, included equitable burden-sharing principles based on common, but differentiated responsibilities for addressing climate change. If countries lived by their Kyoto Protocol commitments, climate change would not have reached a tipping point. But it was sabotaged by the US Congress and, afterwards, countries chose to exceed their carbon budget.

Thus the Katowice’ first principles for implementing the Paris Agreement has turned a blind eye on the historical responsibility of the biggest emitters, while focusing largely on current and future emissions. The deal also includes a universal system for measuring and reporting emissions, where all countries abide by the same rules that will take effect in 2024.

There is no clarity yet as to what would happen to the financing commitment of $100 billion by developed nations towards mitigation efforts in developing countries. With Donald Trump’s administration having walked away from the Paris Agreement, all promises made on financial commitments to address climate change remain only on paper. In short, developing countries are asked to pay for their mitigation and adaptation efforts without the promised assistance coming by.

It is a strange coincidence that even on the trade front, a similar exercise is currently underway if events during the last fortnight are any indication. Under the banner of “reforms" of the trading rules at the World Trade Organization (WTO), attempts are being made to dilute or eliminate the special and differential treatment for developing countries and deny the “policy" space for further industrialization. Like the Katowice deal struck between three dominant polluters, the WTO reform proposals are also seeking to arrive at trade deals with the participation of two or more countries, a la plurilateralization.

Without addressing the real life-and-death issue of the likely disappearance of the highest adjudicating body for enforcing trade rules, the Trump administration is calling the shots at WTO almost along the lines of what it did at Katowice, where it had hosted a pro-fossil fuel event on the sidelines of the talks. “The reform proposals on the table (at the WTO) are not acceptable to the developing countries," Rob Davies, South Africa’s trade minister, said on 7 December in an interview. “These proposals for modernizing WTO will make an unbalanced multilateral trading system even worse by bringing differentiation and by curtailing the policy space for industrial and economic development."

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