Throughout two decades of climate negotiations, diplomats have invoked the phrase “common but differentiated responsibilities” — CBDR — as shorthand for the idea that while all countries need to take action on climate change, their actual responsibilities will differ, depending on how developed they are. Countries fell into one of two categories:  industrialized or developed countries were considered wealthy and capable enough to have immediate legal obligations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, while developing countries were allowed to set their own pace for acting on climate change. The just-closed COP 17 meetings in Durban, South Africa, challenged CBDR in two ways, one of which makes meaningful action to restrict climate change more likely, while the other makes it less likely.

In the positive development, the negotiations concluded with the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, which sets the framework for a future agreement that will ask all countries to commit to taking action now to address climate change. For the first time, the world’s biggest greenhouse gases emitters — China and the United States — have signed on, along with emerging powers India, Brazil and South Africa. CBDR is not mentioned in the Durban Platform.

This is, however, a weak agreement, containing only the commitment to develop international legislation or the more vague “agreed outcome with legal force.” There is no firm plan to lower emissions to the levels scientists say are required to prevent destabilizing global temperature increases. Working out the details of this plan will surely involve returning to the idea that some countries are more responsible for causing climate change and more able to take action to stop it, requiring extensive negotiations over exactly which countries will do what. The process will take years, while emissions will continue at unsustainable levels.

Yet the Durban Platform is a positive step. As late as the night of Friday December 9, when the negotiations were scheduled to close, it looked as if an agreement would not be possible. The current Kyoto Protocol commitment is set to expire at the end of 2012, and even its modest contributions to reducing climate change would have expired without any replacement commitments for industrialized countries, much less developing ones. However, the talks continued for 36 hours beyond the scheduled end, and countries did eventually adopt the Durban agreement that negotiations would continue in future years, with renewed vigour and commitment. The real innovation is in the idea that all countries accept the need to begin to prepare for a low-carbon economy now. Critical economic assistance for developing countries in the form of a Green Climate Fund also moved closer to reality through the negotiations.

The negative development at Durban was that Canada stepped away from its peers — the European Union, Australia and New Zealand — and created its own version of CBDR. Canada unilaterally chose to disavow its obligation as an industrialized country to manage its climate emissions responsibly, and withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol a year before it is scheduled to end. Along with Russia and Japan, Canada had announced publicly during the Durban negotiations that it did not plan to sign up for a second Kyoto commitment period, but early withdrawal from the Protocol was a step further. Canada has actually turned its back on an obligation it had already taken on. Perhaps more seriously, even before withdrawing, Canada did not follow through on what it had promised — it is developing the heavily polluting tar sands instead of investing in better energy alternatives.

During the Durban negotiations, I attended the launch of a new renewable energy initiative by South Africa, a real novelty for a developing country that has always relied heavily on electricity generated from coal. South Africa’s Minister of Trade and Industry, Rob Davies, described the world as “on the cusp of a new wave of industrialization [based on] green and sustainable energy.” South Africa has decided that green energy is the best source of the new high-quality manufacturing and service jobs the country needs. Canada would do well to follow South Africa’s lead.

 

The real innovation is in the idea that all countries accept the need to begin to prepare for a low-carbon economy now.