The Road from Rio to Paris: The Evolution of CBDR?

02nd Mar 2015 Sustainability

Understanding the Concept of CBDR
The concept of ‘Common but Differentiated Responsibilities’ [CBDR] has existed in the international environmental law framework to reduce the imbalance between the developed and developing nations. The concept rests on two major pillars: the historical contribution of developed countries towards greenhouse emissions and consequent deterioration of the environment, and the socio-economic status of the developing nations which lack adequate technological capacity to protect the environment while striving to achieve economic advancement. This concept finds mention in the Stockholm Declaration, the Rio Declaration, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change [UNFCCC] and the Kyoto Protocol, among others, albeit the stipulations of the concept are not exactly the same.

This concept takes into account the common responsibility of both developed and developing nations in protecting the environment and promoting sustainable development. However, it allocates differentiated responsibility among the two categories of countries owing to the historical contribution of developed countries and their enhanced technological and financial strength through which they can render assistance to the developing countries.  The concept seeks to address the equity gaps between the developed and developing countries, whereby inter-generational and intra-generational equity is attained, at an inter-state level. As the Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC gear up for the 21st session on December 2015 in Paris [CoP 21], understanding the role of the CBDR with regard to climate change activities becomes increasingly relevant.

Entering the CBDR Debate
CBDR has been a thorny issue in international environmental law primarily owing to the differential responsibility spelt out for the developed countries. The lack of clarity with regard to this concept or principle has contributed to a widening of the North-South divide owing to different interpretations of the same text by the developed and developing countries. The varied approach of the developed and developing countries towards concepts such as ‘historical responsibility’ and ‘national circumstances’ contribute to much widespread ambiguity and confusion regarding the CBDR.

Historical Responsibility
The notion of ‘historical responsibility’ has undergone visible transformation since the stipulation in the Rio Declaration and the UNFCCC which notes that the ‘largest share of historical and current global emissions of greenhouse gases has originated in developed countries and that per capita emissions in developing countries are still relatively low’. For example, the US and the EU are two of the largest historical contributors of greenhouse gas emissions (Ellermann, Höhne & Müller 2011; Dellink et al. 2008, 2009)[i]. The figure below [Figure 1] indicates the level of carbon dioxide emissions across the world.

Figure 1: Representation of the countries by carbon dioxide emissions in thousands of tonnes per annum, via the burning of fossil fuels (blue being the highest)

Representation of the countries by carbon dioxide emissions in thousands of tonnes per annum, via the burning of fossil fuels (blue being the highest).

Pre-Kyoto Protocol, the developed countries were only encouraged to stabilize the greenhouse emissions. However, recognizing the inadequacy of the emission reduction provisions in the UNFCCC, the Kyoto Protocol was formally adopted in the 3rd session of the Conference of Parties in Kyoto [CoP 3] in 1997. The Kyoto Protocol operationalized the Convention by asking the developed countries to commit to bind emission reduction targets over a specified period. The Doha Amendment to the Kyoto Protocol was adopted in Doha, Qatar, in 2012, launching a second commitment period, starting on 1 January 2013 until 2020.

However, the US has been very critical of the Kyoto Protocol, contending that the protocol, built on CBDR and exempting the developing countries of binding commitments, would lead to a situation of unfair economic disadvantage (Honkonen 2009)[ii]. The US, despite being one of the current largest emitters of greenhouse gases as discernible from the figure below [Figure 2], voiced concerns that the rapidly evolving developing countries would be responsible for the lion’s share of greenhouse emissions in the future and therefore, it would be unfair to leave them out of the binding commitments system.

Figure 2: Cumulative emissions of G20 & non-G20 countries: 1751-2006 [left] and 2008 Global CO2 Emissions from Fossil Fuel Combustion and some Industrial Processes (million metric tons of CO2) [right]

Cumulative emissions of G20

Source: and

Taking the example of India, it is estimated that it contributes about 5 per cent of all global greenhouse gas emissions, ranking it fourth in the world in absolute emissions. However, its per capita emissions are only a fraction of those of developed countries, for example about a tenth of the per capita figures for the United States (Rastogi 2013)[iii]. Developing countries such as India and South Africa are heavily dependent on cheap non-renewable energy in the form of coal for achieving their economic goals. It would be extremely unfair if such developing countries, where poverty is so widespread, are forced to compromise on their immediate developmental needs to take on their climate change responsibilities on equal footing with the historically responsible developed countries such as the US.

A remarkable step was taken for understanding CBDR in the context of the climate change regime at the 16th session of the Conference of Parties which took place in Cancun in 2010 [CoP 16]. The link between historical responsibility and current responsibility was unambiguously drawn. The Preamble to Part III (Enhanced action on mitigation) of the Cancun Agreements acknowledges that the ‘largest share of historical global emissions of greenhouse gases originated in developed countries and that, owing to this historical responsibility, developed country Parties must take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof’.

In the most recent Conference of Parties in Lima held in December 2014 [CoP 20] the parties made substantial progress by elaborating the elements for a draft negotiating text as contained in the annex to the Lima Call for Action decision. This new agreement is scheduled to be agreed in Paris in late 2015. The Preamble to the draft text recognizes the importance of both historical responsibility and CBDR in climate change actions whereby, ‘parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with historical responsibility, common but differentiated responsibilities’ also taking into account ‘respective capabilities’ of the nations. Therefore, CBDR in tandem with historical responsibility, has evolved as an essential principle associated with the climate change regime.

National Circumstances
The phrase, ‘national circumstances’ has been the subject of much controversy since its incorporation in the draft text of the proposed Paris agreement. The text recognizes ‘the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in light of different national circumstances’. This phrase, which takes into account changing global realities, is being widely construed as being a dilution of the CBDR principle as it brings rapidly evolving industrial economies such as China, India and Brazil on the same footing as industrialised countries such as the US and the EU. The similarity between the CBDR formulation in the draft text and the US-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change made in November 2014 is strikingly similar.

Rapidly evolving emerging economies such as China and India have evolved with the changing times, making voluntary commitments to reduce carbon emissions. For example, at the Bonn Climate Change Conference in 2013, the Chinese delegation named several national targets regarding reductions in carbon intensity and targets for the use of non-fossil energy, its electricity mix as well as carbon sinks (IISD 2013)[iv]. India announced its commitment to voluntary carbon-intensity reduction targets of 20–25 per cent from 2005 levels by 2020, in Copenhagen in 2009.

However, the incorporation of the national circumstances provision in the text of the Paris agreement, effectively blurring the distinctions between the developed and developing countries which have been so strictly retained in the form of Annex I countries (usually the developed countries) and the Non-Annex I countries (usually the developing countries) will pose as a socio-economic disadvantage for the BRICS members particularly. This provision would be in contravention of the generally recognized principles of fairness and equity as it would render equal treatment among unequal nations in terms of historical responsibility.

On the contrary, the vagueness of this provision can be used by developed countries to escape or steer clear of their climate change obligations. Mr. Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) argues that developed countries can now cite any national circumstance like the recession in Europe or the incapability to bring relevant legislation to justify its action or inaction with respect to climate change control.

On one hand, some of the developed nations such as the US and the EU are pushing for obliteration of differences between the developed and developing nations owing to the change in the contemporary setting since 1992. On the other hand, some of the rapidly evolving developing countries such as India and China have always underscored the role of CBDR in the climate change regime which recognizes the historical responsibility of the developed nations and the economic aspirations of the developing countries.

Therefore, there is a need to define CBDR while considering the developmental and historical responsibility aspects of various nations, guided by the principles of fairness and equity. The CBDR principle is a cornerstone of the international climate change regime. This principle, along with enhanced facilitation of adaptation, which allows better sharing of technology and finance between the developed and developing countries, is essential for perpetuating effectiveness in the global climate change regime and creating a sustainable future. Therefore, the Conference of Parties in Paris or CoP 21 assumes great significance as one will witness if the CBDR will evolve or not and if the twain comprising historical responsibility and development will meet.

  • [i] Ellermann, C., N. Höhne & B. Müller, Differentiating Historical Responsibilities for Climate Change in CHINA’S RESPONSIBILITY FOR CLIMATE CHANGE: ETHICS, FAIRNESS AND ENVIRONMENTAL POLICY (P. G. Harris ed., Bristol, The Policy Press at the University of Bristol 2011); Dellink, R. et al., Sharing the Burden of Adaptation Financing: Translating Ethical Principles into Practical Policy (IVM report R08/05, 2008); Dellink, R. et al., Sharing the Burden of Financing Adaptation to Climate Change, 19 (4) GLOBAL ENVIRONMENTAL CHANGE 411-21 (2009).
  • [iii] Rastogi, P., India’s Evolving Climate Change Strategy in CLIMATE CHANGE AND THE LAW: IUS GENTIUM: COMPARATIVE PERSPECTIVES ON LAW AND JUSTICE (E. J. Hollo eds., 2013),
  • [iv] International Institute for Sustainable Development [IISD], Summary of the Bonn Climate Change Conference, 12 (568) EARTH NEGOTIATIONS BULLETIN (2013),