Ex­plor­ing rocky road on the way to ac­cord over cli­mate change


One of the big­gest global events this year is the United Na­tions Cli­mate Con­fer­ence in Paris in De­cem­ber.

A new agree­ment to tackle cli­mate change is ex­pected, but there are many hur­dles to over­come first.

Ne­go­ti­a­tions for the Paris agree­ment are now tak­ing place in Bonn. Old un­re­solved is­sues have resur­faced, with sharp di­vi­sions be­tween de­vel­oped coun­tries (the North) and de­vel­op­ing coun­tries (the South).

It’s hard to see how they can be set­tled in the re­main­ing three meet­ings, in­clud­ing the Paris con­fer­ence.”

But a deal in Paris is a po­lit­i­cal ne­ces­sity, so some­how the dif­fer­ences have to be bridged, or else pa­pered over.

There are two req­ui­sites for a good cli­mate deal. It has to be en­vi­ron­men­tally am­bi­tious, mean­ing that it leads the world to re­duce emis­sions so that the av­er­age global tem­per­a­ture does not in­crease by more than 2 de­grees Cel­sius (or 1.5 de­grees Cel­sius, ac­cord­ing to some) above the prein­dus­trial pe­riod.

That present tem­per­a­ture has now ex­ceeded by 0.8 de­grees Cel­sius.

With global emis­sions in­creas­ing by about 50 bil­lion tonnes a year, the re­main­ing “space” in the at­mos­phere to ab­sorb more emis­sions (be­fore the 2 de­grees Cel­sius limit is reached) will be ex­hausted in three decades or so.

The deal also has to be fair and eq­ui­table. The North, hav­ing been mainly re­spon­si­ble for the his­tor­i­cal emis­sions and be­ing more eco­nom­i­cally ad­vanced, has to take the lead in cut­ting emis­sions as well as trans­fer­ring funds and tech­nol­ogy to the South to help it switch to low-car­bon sus­tain­able devel­op­ment pathways.

This eq­uity prin­ci­ple is in­deed em­bed­ded in the U.N. Cli­mate Con­ven­tion, which will house the new Paris agree­ment, and which is now con­duct­ing the ne­go­ti­a­tions.

The South coun­tries in­sist that this prin­ci­ple be at the cen­ter of the new agree­ment, and that in­deed it has to be since it comes un­der the Con­ven­tion.

But the North coun­tries are most re­luc­tant. They claim the world has changed, and all coun­tries (ex­cept the least de­vel­oped) should be treated the same way.

By this they mean that a new regime should be cre­ated in which all coun­tries should un­der­take the same emis­sions re­duc­tion obligations now, or in the near fu­ture.

In the in­terim, all coun­tries should con­trib­ute in var­i­ous ways to cut their present and fu­ture emis­sions.

And they should do this, even if they do not get funds and tech­nol­ogy they ask for.

The de­vel­op­ing coun­tries ar­gue that this kind of at­ti­tude is tan­ta­mount to the North es­cap­ing their legal obligations un­der the present Con­ven­tion, and in ef­fect sub­vert­ing the Con­ven­tion’s prin­ci­ples and pro­vi­sions and re-writ­ing the rules.

They are con­cerned that this is aimed at shift­ing the bur­den of change away from the North to the South.

Mov­ing from the present cheap oil-based en­ergy sys­tem to one based on re­new­able en­ergy, and other trans­for­ma­tions, re­quires a so­cial, eco­nomic and tech­no­log­i­cal revo­lu­tion that is costly.

Will it af­fect devel­op­ment goals? Who will pay for this cost? How to ob­tain the tech­nolo­gies cheaply enough?


obligations should

the South take on un­der the Paris agree­ment if the North does not meet its obli­ga­tion to help out?

The cur­rent Bonn ses­sion is grap­pling with a draft that con­tains the dif­fer­ent views. Among the key is­sues:

Same or dif­fer­ent treat­ment

Should coun­tries have the same obligations to ad­dress emis­sions and to pro­vide fi­nanc­ing (a po­si­tion fa­vored by the North) or have dif­fer­ent obligations, ac­cord­ing to their his­tor­i­cal re­spon­si­bil­i­ties and cur­rent level of devel­op­ment (the South’s view)?

Bal­ance on Mit­i­ga­tion, Adap­ta­tion, Loss and Dam­age

Gen­er­ally, the North is more in­ter­ested in fo­cus­ing the agree­ment on hav­ing obligations on mit­i­ga­tion (re­duc­ing emis­sions), whilst the South is equally or even more con­cerned about ac­tions on adap­ta­tion (mea­sures to re­duce the ef­fects of cli­mate change) and loss and dam­age (cop­ing with the dam­age caused by cli­mate change, such as storms, heavy rain, floods, drought, etc). The North is es­pe­cially re­sist­ing loss and dam­age.


The North pledged to mo­bi­lize US$100 bil­lion a year for cli­mate ac­tions for the South by 2020, but only a small frac­tion is avail­able so far. The South wants a firm com­mit­ment on fi­nance in the Paris agree­ment, and a road map on how the money will in­crease to US$100 bil­lion be­tween now and 2020, but this is re­sisted by the North.


The South wants con­crete com­mit­ments from the North to trans­fer tech­nolo­gies needed for mit­i­ga­tion and adap­ta­tion ac­tions, in­clud­ing re­mov­ing bar­ri­ers such as lack of funds and knowhow, and in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty (IP) which may raise the cost. The North wants the South to ob­tain tech­nol­ogy on com­mer­cial terms, and does not want the agree­ment to men­tion the IP is­sue or ad­dress know-how.

Coun­tries’ ‘con­tri­bu­tions’

Coun­tries are ex­pected to sub­mit the “con­tri­bu­tions” they in­tend to make to global cli­mate ac­tion. The North wants de­vel­op­ing coun­tries to sub­mit fig­ures on their max­i­mum mit­i­ga­tion obligations.

The de­vel­op­ing coun­tries are up­set that the North is re­fus­ing to com­mit any fig­ures on fund­ing, and many want to also in­clude their ac­tions on adap­ta­tion to show the range of their con­tri­bu­tion to global ac­tions.

Mean­while the mit­i­ga­tion com­mit­ments sub­mit­ted by sev­eral de­vel­oped coun­tries show a low level of am­bi­tion.

Legally Bind­ing?

The Paris out­come could be a pro­to­col or an­other legally bind­ing agree­ment or an out­come with legal force. How bind­ing it will be on coun­tries, and what hap­pens if they do not com­ply, will be one of the fi­nal is­sues to be re­solved.

There are also var­i­ous shades of views within the de­vel­oped coun­tries and the de­vel­op­ing coun­tries.

But th­ese are among the key is­sues where large dif­fer­ences, mainly along North-South lines, ex­ist.

Whether they can be bridged be­fore or at Paris re­mains to be seen. The fate of our cli­mate, and hu­man­ity’s fu­ture, de­pends quite a lot on it. Martin Khor is ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the South Cen­tre, a re­search cen­ter of 51 de­vel­op­ing coun­tries, based in Geneva.

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