Climate: the thorny question of the historical responsibility of industrialized countries


You will not have missed it: the 27e Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Climate Convention opens this Monday, November 7, 2022 at Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. The discussions, which promise to be tough, will continue until November 18. It will indeed be the first COP where the issue of financial compensation for damage suffered by developing countries will be high on the agenda.

This summit meeting, which brings together nearly 200 countries, promises to be heckled by the growing distrust of the South towards the North, and by the recurring demands of the group "developing countries + China", nothing less than 6,5 billion inhabitants out of the 8 of the planet !

The 100 billion saga

To understand the tensions and debates around this central question (who is responsible for global warming, who should pay?), we must go back.

December 2009: while negotiations at the Copenhagen COP15 are entering their home stretch, US President Barak Obama is proposing an envelope of 100 billion dollars per year, to be mobilized from 2020 to finance mitigation and adaptation policies in developing countries.

This was less about "North-South solidarity" than an attempt to wrest a deal : financial transfers from industrialized countries against commitments to reduce emissions from major emerging countries. All will refuse China in the lead, to promise anything.

Thirteen years later, according to the OECD, the 100 billion would be about to be met. But the announcement is greeted with skepticism and mistrust by developing countries. This envelope is indeed mainly made up of loans – which will therefore have to be reimbursed – rather than donations.

Lack of transparency as to their “new and additional” character compared to traditional development aid, these funds escape almost any control of the countries of the South as to their allocation.

The breath of fresh air that had been the promise of 100 billion has now turned into deep frustration.

The Sea Serpent of “Loss and Damage”

From 1991, during the first negotiations for the United Nations Climate Convention, the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), all vulnerable to rising waters, already proposed an "international financial compensation mechanism for the loss and damage associated with the negative effects of climate change”.

In fact, a international mechanism for loss and damage will be created in 2013 at COP19 in Warsaw. But, two years later, the Paris Agreement specified that it was a tool of cooperation and not of reparation, and that it "cannot give rise to or serve as the basis for any liability or compensation".

A "dialogue on loss and damage for the most vulnerable countries" will finally have been initiated at COP26 in Glasgow (2021) (says “Glasgow Climate Pact”).

In recent years, the countries of the South will have put pressure so that a financial compensation mechanism for damages can be officially launched at COP27. But the United States and Europe have never wanted it and they will not support the creation of a new fund.

In Sharm el-Sheikh, for this COP27, they will therefore limit themselves to proposing – this is the official position of the EU – strengthen existing institutions.

These intense tensions have their roots in the representation of “historical responsibilities”, a concept that has structured negotiations since the early 1990s.

Historical responsibilities, this structuring dimension of climate negotiations

The principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities”, enshrined in the 1992 Climate Convention, set in stone the division of the world into two blocks as well as the concept of historical responsibility of industrialized countries alone.

It has so far exempted the countries of the South, including China, from any obligation to reduce emissions; then brings in the theme of financing adaptation; and finally, that of financial compensation for the damage suffered by the countries of the South.

It has been a central element of climate negotiations for 30 years, expressing the demand for international solidarity in the face of the threats of global warming. At least in the speeches, because the difficulties were constant. This principle of historical responsibilities has in fact been transformed over time into increasingly pressing demands, all formulated in terms of “climate justice”.

The United States has always been a tenacious opponent to this principle. They never rallied to it and it will be written down at the Rio conference (1992). This principle cannot therefore be interpreted as a recognition of international obligations on their part; even less like "a reduction in the responsibilities of developing countries".

This position remains the red line of Washington's climate diplomacy.

Relative historical responsibilities

Economist Olivier Godard pointed out that the historical responsibility of industrialized countries, which underlies claims for compensation for loss and damage, is not not so easy to establish than it seems, whether in terms of legal and moral foundations, or even statistics.

But for its defenders, representatives of emerging countries or less advanced countries, things are clear. As early as 1991, the South Center, a laboratory of ideas of the countries of the South, indicates that the industrialized countries would have historically preempted the environmental space. And the mere observation of relative cumulative emissions would suffice to demonstrate this responsibility. It would then be justified to impute to States and their current populations the actions of past generations. It would then be up to them to assume obligations to repair the damage caused by the behavior of their ancestors.

What about the numbers? To see this more clearly, it is necessary to study the relative evolution of greenhouse gas emissions, annual and cumulative, of the industrialized countries (known as the Annex 1 group in the Climate Convention) and that of the developing countries, major emerging countries and China included. (Non-Schedule 1 group).

Authors, PRIMAP data, PIK (Posdam Climate Institute)

Examination of annual emissions shows a break in Annex 1 countries from 1980 (the second oil shock), with a slow decline since then. On the other hand, for Non-Annex 1 countries, they have continued to increase, and exponentially. Result: if, in 1980, the emissions of the industrialized countries represented twice those of the group “developing countries + China”, this proportion is reversed today.

For cumulative emissions (those that could measure historical responsibility) up to the end of the XNUMXe century, before the full deployment of the industrial revolution in the North, emissions from the countries of the South dominate.

The landscape then changed completely, and this until 1980, when the share of northern countries reached its maximum (70%). Since then, it has continued to decline due to strong economic growth in emerging countries. Today, it is still over 50%, but it will not take ten years for the cumulative emissions of developing and emerging countries to exceed those of industrialized countries. Historical responsibilities will then be shared, at least 50%.

A moral responsibility?

On the other hand, before 1990 the basic conditions for founding an argument of responsibility were not met. Earlier generations did not have the prior knowledge the fact that greenhouse gas emissions would alter the climate, it is therefore impossible to blame them and, a fortiori, to make subsequent generations responsible for it. And, it goes without saying that current generations have no ability to act, no means of influencing the energy and development choices of past generations.

Moreover, it was from the 1990s that the acceleration of economic growth in emerging countries, based on a massive increase in their consumption of fossil fuels, resulted in an equally massive increase in their emissions. As a result, each year for the past twenty years, their emissions have increasingly exceeded those of Annex 1 countries.

However, in terms of instant individual responsibility, per capita emissions are still much higher in the North than in the South, due in particular to the intensity of their energy consumption. With one major exception, however, since China's per capita emissions now exceed those of the European Union.

Graph showing GHG emissions per capita
SDES, Ministry of Ecological Transition (Key climate figures 2022)

As we can see, it will be impossible to settle the question of historical responsibility. It will remain undecidable, passionate and at the highest political point. No number, no theory of justice will ever be able to found a consensus, and this question will constitute in a durable way a "skandalon", a stumbling block, likely to stumble the negotiation.

An insoluble conflict

The demands of the countries of the South cannot be fully satisfied in Sharm el-Sheikh.

On "loss and damage", a major study published in 2018 estimated it at nothing less than $290-580 billion per year by 2030. With intensified warming, the cost of impacts could exceed $1 trillion each year by 000.

However reliable these assessments, it is unrealistic to imagine that the United States and the European Union would bind themselves to a responsibility that would force them to disburse hundreds of billions of dollars each year.

However, no one has an interest in COP27 ending in a fiasco. A compromise, unsatisfactory, and primarily for developing countries, will have to be found. Diplomacy is also the art of masking conflicts that will never find a solution.

Nathalie Rousset – PhD in economics, former program officer at Plan Bleu, now a consultant – contributed to the processing of data and the drafting of this text.

Michael Damian, Honorary Professor, Grenoble Alpes University (UGA) et Patrick Criqui, Emeritus Research Director at CNRS, Grenoble Alpes University (UGA)

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

Recent articles >

Summary of news from March 24, 2023

outlined-grey clock icon

Recent news >