A Question of Climate Equality

Should developed countries compensate developing countries for loss and damages from climate change? How should we regulate sustainable technology sharing among countries? Will nations ever be able to overcome their differences in opinion and create a new international climate agreement?

These are just a few of the questions that delegates from countries around the world will discuss at the upcoming 19th Conference of the Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Warsaw, Poland. The annual conference, which this year runs from November 11–22, 2013, is the largest annual negotiation meeting on climate change in the world.

The history of international climate change negotiations spans more than twenty years, although differing viewpoints among major powers have resulted in stunted progress towards an effective international agreement. The Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), ratified by 195 countries at (or soon after) the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, was a landmark agreement in the international effort to fight climate change. The Convention kicked off the climate change conversation with the recognition that climate change is a problem, that it is (at least partly) due to human activity, and that developed countries should be primarily responsible for limiting greenhouse gas emissions. An important phrase in the Convention is common but differentiated responsibilities — the idea that all nations have a responsibility to address climate change, but developed and developing countries differ in their historical responsibility for emissions and their respective economic and technological capabilities to address climate change.

Over the past two decades, the idea of common but differentiated responsibilities has defined the debate at each COP. In the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, the most famous outcome of the COP process, only developed countries had mandatory emissions reductions limits. Because of this, the United States never ratified the treaty and, with the Byrd-Hagel Resolution, committed to never signing onto an international climate treaty that did not also have mandatory emissions reduction targets for developing countries. Due in large part to this declaration, the Kyoto Protocol has lacked the power to be an effective global climate change treaty. With the economic rise of developing countries such as China, India, South Korea and Brazil, there is significant debate in the UNFCCC negotiations on whether the idea of common but differentiated responsibilities can continue to be a key tenet of international climate agreements.

While a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol was agreed upon at the last COP in Doha, Qatar last year, the withdrawal of Canada from the Protocol in 2011 (and the lack of participation from the United States and many developing countries) has made it clear that a new agreement is needed. The members of the UNFCCC have set out to negotiate a replacement for Kyoto by 2015, to enter into force by 2020. This year’s COP in Warsaw is an important stepping stone to continue the negotiations on many key issues surrounding equality between developed and developing countries. Top issues to be discussed include:

• Loss and Damage: This new topic in the international climate debate concerns whether developing countries already facing the negative impacts of climate change are entitled to payments or an insurance scheme for their losses, primarily funded by developing countries. Developing countries are requesting compensation for both economic and non-economic (loss of livelihoods, culture and lives) damages.

• Adaptation: As the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere continues to rise, our ability to completely prevent climate change has disappeared. Countries now must focus much of their effort on how to adapt to the consequences of climate change, from sea level rise to desertification and many of the challenges in between.

• Technology Transfer: Clean energy technology is key to hitting emissions reductions targets in developed and developing countries, but most of this new technology is only available in developed countries. The UNFCCC has instated a Technology Mechanism to promote the development and transfer of technologies to developing countries, but the extent of this effort is still under negotiation.

• Long-Term Finance: Developed countries have committed to provide US$100 billion per year to assist developing countries with mitigation and adaptation beginning in 2020. How this amount will be funded and distributed is a hot topic in the climate negotiations this year.

It’s apparent that much of the conversation around international climate agreements centers on international climate equality. The division of responsibility between nations that have historically caused most of the greenhouse gas emissions and nations that are most vulnerable to climate change is a dynamic that has dragged negotiations to a halt in the past. With the 2015 agreement likely to be the last chance the international community has to make significant progress in mitigating the most serious impacts of climate change, it will be important for nations to begin to compromise on these issues in Warsaw to set the stage for an effective agreement in 2015.

Stay tuned to Sense & Sustainability for more updates on COP 19. We’ll be on the ground at the conference to bring you the latest outcomes and developments as the international community continues the effort to negotiate a solution to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Image Credit: By Reto Stöckli (land surface, shallow water, clouds) Robert Simmon (enhancements: ocean color, compositing, 3D globes, animation) Data and technical support: MODIS Land Group; MODIS Science Data Support Team; MODIS Atmosphere Group; MODIS Ocean Group Additional data: USGS EROS Data Center (topography); USGS Terrestrial Remote Sensing Flagstaff Field Center (Antarctica); Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (city lights). 

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