Should Emerging Economies be Expected to Bear the Burden of Climate Change Equally with Western Developed Countries?

Published on: August 19, 2015

Filed Under: Commentary

Climate change is a truly global issue because GHG emissions released in one country will have detrimental effect on all others across the globe. Climate change therefore needs to be addressed collectively by all nations. Before effective changes can be made the issue of who should bear the burden of climate change must be addressed. Should emerging economies be expected to bear the burden of climate change equally with Western developed countries? Western developed countries include the United States of America, Germany and the United Kingdom. Developing economies include Brazil, China and India. This article will examine aspects of historical responsibility, the principle of common but differentiated responsibility (CBDR), technology transfer, balance of world powers, and sustainable development. It will then outline three possible ways to approach these issues at Paris in December.


I        Historical Responsibility

While adaptation techniques are necessary to combat climate change mitigation of prior harm must also be addressed. Climate change negotiations often look also to historical responsibility. There has been significant variation in the contribution to GHG emissions by different countries over the years. Historically the majority of emissions can be traced back to Western developed countries. Industrialised countries have been responsible for three quarters of global emissions released into the Earth’s atmosphere during the period 1705 – 2005.[1] As a consequence it is argued that those who have caused the problem should bear primary responsibility for mitigating the effects of their actions, in line with the generally accepted norm that if you cause a problem you should be primarily responsible for fixing it. This is based on the principle of ‘polluter pays’, where a country is assigned responsibility based partially on the emissions they have made historically.[2] This concept is observed throughout international environmental discussions, including in Principle 16 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development which declares that; “national authorities should endeavour to promote the internalization of environmental costs and the use of economic instruments, taking into account the approach that the polluter should, in principle, bear the cost of pollution…”[3] This makes it clear that countries should contribute to mitigating the historical damage in proportion to their level of contribution to the problem. Developed countries that have emitted large quantities of GHG in the past should therefore bear the burden proportionately. Emerging economies should not be expected to bear a similar burden because they have not been equal contributors to the problem. For example, in 1988 the United States carbon dioxide emissions were 20 metric tons per capita while China’s were a mere 2.2.[4] This shows that emissions have been disproportionate historically and therefore the burden should be distributed accordingly. If developed states recognise and take action to mitigate their historical responsibility for past damage developing economies may be more receptive to adopting adaption techniques and sustainable development that will reduce their own GHG emissions. If there is no ownership of historical damage by developed countries, developing economies may be less inclined to take action of their own on the basis of equity due to a perception that they have to use their limited resources to find solutions to a problem primarily caused by developed nations.[5]


II       Common but Differentiated Responsibility (CBDR)

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) first acknowledged the CBDR principle in the 1992 Rio declaration and it has been a feature in both discussions and agreements of the parties to the conference (COP) since.[6] The principle states that all countries need to act however developed countries party to the declaration should lead by taking greater action than developing countries.[7] The UNFCCC states that, “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 their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. Accordingly, the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof.”[8] Differentiated responsibilities derive from the differing contributions of States to climate change and the differing capacities of States to take action.[9] It recognises that developing countries have other concerns including poverty reduction, economic growth and capacity building that may need to take precedence over GHG emission reduction.[10]

The Kyoto Protocol also reflects the principle whereby only developed countries (those listed under Annex I) agree to be bound to the target of reducing their GHG emissions by an average of 5% below 1990 levels.[11] Developing countries have no obligation to commit to controlling GHG emission levels under the Protocol in the same way.[12] This indicates that developed countries should bear the burden of climate change to a greater extent, in accordance with the expectations placed on them.[13]

While many international agreements and declarations date back many years the principle remains at the forefront of international climate change negotiations in 2015. In December Cop-21 will be held. There is a draft text of what the parties are attempting to agree on currently available to the public.[14] The Cop-21 draft contains 44 references to the CBDR principle.[15] Under the section; “long-term and global aspects of mitigation” all three draft options recognise the principle and indicate the need for developed countries to take primary responsibility.[16] The continuing recognition of the principle at the forefront of climate change negotiations, particularly in relation to long-term goals, sends a clear message that emerging economies are not expected to bear the burden equally to developed countries. The wording of the draft text indicates the principle will remain prevalent. As a consequence there is little incentive for emerging economies to take greater responsibility and share the burden equally when the international framework is not requiring them to do so nor is it providing significant incentive to make changes in that direction. It is therefore logical that emerging economies are not going to use their resources (time, money and man-power) on climate change efforts while they have other pressing concerns, nor should it be expected when the international framework does not ask for it.


III      Technology Transfer

In order for GHG emissions to be reduced, environmentally friendly technology needs to be implemented and utilised on a global scale. Such technologies have been primarily developed in Western developed countries.[17] Such technology is urgently required in developing countries in order to mitigate the constantly increasing GHG emissions of expanding emerging economies.[18] The onus to ensure transfer of technology is on Western developed countries that already obtain it or the means to invent environmentally friendly alternatives to current industrial methods. If developed nations do not facilitate such transfers, the ability of many developing countries to adapt their industries will be hampered because they do not have the infrastructure, expertise or financial ability to create the technology.

Many developing countries are prepared to respond if such transfers are offered. In the submission of their Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) prior to COP-21, Mexico has indicated a commitment to reduce their GHG emissions by 25%.[19] They have also indicated the ability to increase to 40% if there is a global agreement in allowing access to low-cost financial resources and technology transfer.[20] If developed countries do not facilitate access to such resources they will be creating a barrier to effective change.

In 2010 COP agreed to set up the Technology Executive Committee (TEC) to work with the Technology Centre and Network (CTCN) to facilitate effective implementation of a technology transfer framework.[21] This commitment further indicates an expectation for developed countries to bear a greater share of the burden based on the capabilities they have. Therefore developing economies such as Mexico are justified in projecting lower reduction levels until commitments to technology sharing are fulfilled.


IV      Emerging Economies Should Bear an Equal Burden

While the international message is not one of equal burden sharing this is not without critics. The United States withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol citing (among other reasons) the exemption of developing countries from the same binding commitments of developed countries.[22] While the US may have been one of the first vocal opponents to this framework there is a growing number of countries also in favour of an updated structure. It was made clear at Cop-20 that many developed countries believe the principles under the UNFCCC are out of date and new principles reflective of the current social and economic development of the world would be more appropriate.[23] This would include changes to the Kyoto Protocol to no longer reflect differing obligations of Annex I and Non-Annex I parties.[24] There is increasing discontent that the current framework is facilitating some developing countries to evade greater responsibility under the guise of CBDR even though they should have an obligation to accept a greater burden. Western developed countries are no longer as willing to lead the way without guaranteed assurance that developing countries will also fulfil obligations of their own.


V       Balance of World Powers

Developed countries, including the US and Germany, are still the largest contributors to GHG however; developing economies are fast catching up. It is anticipated that the developing world’s collective emissions will surpass those of developed countries within the next 30 years.[25] On this rationale it is projected that developing economies will be responsible for over 75% of the global increase in emissions between now and 2030.[26] Statistics such as these suggest the world’s developing economies should be bearing an equal burden to western developed countries in order to take into consideration historic, current and future emissions. If not compensated for, countries such as China and India gain economic benefits without having to take responsibility for the negative environmental impact. This poses a question as to what point a developing nation should be expected to take a greater role in mitigation and adaption to reduce GHG levels. Collective levels around the world are unlikely to significantly drop when countries that are not obligated to make reductions are releasing some of the largest quantities of emissions. This appears counter-productive to emission reduction efforts when China is the biggest carbon dioxide emitter and one of the largest exporting countries in the world.[27] Allowances are made for developing economies to continually increase their emissions levels on the basis of development.[28] This allowance seriously hinders efforts to remedy climate change because it allows developing nations to over consume without enforceable consequence and undermines approaches to remedying global warming taken by other nations.[29] Recent research indicates that even if Annex I nations reduce their emissions to zero by 2050, the growth in emissions from developing countries will make it virtually impossible to reach the current GHG reduction targets.[30] Emerging economies should be bearing a significant burden or the consequences will be dire for all countries.

Dynamics within the international community are shifting. Developing economies such as Brazil, India and China are gaining influence and power within global politics partially due to their fast expanding economies.[31] They are able to assert authority on a global scale, often doing so without recognising the responsibilities that must come with the influence they are gaining.[32] China is the second largest economy by GDP while Brazil and India are amongst the top ten largest.[33] Despite this they are able to use the label of ‘developing’ as a shield against responsibility for the negative environmental impacts of their industries by pointing to underdevelopment or poverty as reasons to evade the responsibility that comes with being major international players.[34] If countries wish to be major players in the international sphere they must be willing to accept responsibilities and carry a significant share of the climate change burden.


VI      Sustainable Development

Sustainable development involves combining environmental concerns with socio-economic issues.[35] If developing economies are held to the same standards as developed countries and are incentivised to grow in a manner that is environmentally sustainable they will not have to address problems that are currently being addressed by developed nations.[36] While financial resources could be seen as a barrier to sustainable development this does not have to be so, as developing economies would have had to use resources to modify in the future. This can be seen as a redistribution of funds to pre-emptively combat industries’ contributions to climate change rather than having to take a remedial approach in the future.


VII         Future Options

Retention of the CBDR Principle

One option for addressing where the climate change burden should fall in the future is to retain the CBDR principle but make a change that ensures all countries, not just Western developed nations, make binding agreements. If such an agreement were made all UNFCCC members would be engaging in climate change discussions with the same level of obligation. Current feelings of animosity and unwillingness to contribute because other countries do not have to do so would be reduced and a truly global approach would have the opportunity to emerge. There would still be recognition that developed and developing countries have different priorities as well as different starting points on how to tackle climate change within their own nation but there would be an assurance that all countries are contributing at an agreed level. Binding agreements would create an expectation that all nations are actively committed to ensuring mitigation and adaption techniques are implemented.

This change would enable the burden to be framed as an equal one whilst recognising that some nations would be unable to discharge their obligations until Western developed nations engage in the transfer of technology while at the same time having higher emission reduction targets. This would be done with the understanding that once certain changes had been set in motion developing nations would have obligations they must then fulfil. This differs from the current framework where developed countries are currently concerned developing economies will not fulfil agreements they are not bound to.

The Paris meeting of Cop-21 would be a setting in which this agreement could be made if the final text was revised to include the necessary provisions and agreed to by all parties. However such changes would require a drastic overhaul in perspective of many developing countries that are currently unwilling to make binding commitments.

Create a New Class of ‘Advanced Developing Countries’

An alternative option is to maintain the current framework with a greater burden on developed countries but create a new class of ‘advanced developing countries’ who are required to undertake the same binding obligations as developed countries. This would ensure that countries such as India, Russia and China, whose choices are critical to the future progress of climate change, are forced to take responsibility rather than hiding under the umbrella of ‘developing’ as discussed above. The creation of a third class would ensure developing economies at a lower level of development such as Iran, Iraq, Zimbabwe and Guinea would maintain their status as developing economies without having binding obligations as they have not reached levels of development comparable to the likes of China. This would ensure their limited capacity is still realised without placing unreasonable expectations. The development of a third class would ensure that countries such as Russia, China and India who have the ability to be influential on the global front have to take the responsibility that comes with their expanding economies.

Remove the idea of assigning the burden

An alternative drastic approach would be to remove the idea of burden sharing altogether as it has created a structure that countries continue to operate within without producing effective results. By removing the burden sharing ideology a new holistic approach could be implemented that recognises historical responsibility as well as current and future responsibility. This would have the capacity to reframe climate change negotiations as a truly global concern and would enable strategies for mitigation and adaption to operate on a global basis instead of having countries working individually. Instead of countries saying what they are prepared to do a new structure would begin by laying out exactly what is required globally to ensure temperatures do not rise more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The requirements can be broken down into tangible steps that each country is bound to follow in order for effective change to occur. This would transform climate change action from being inwardly focused on individual nations to outwardly focus on what can be done as a collective global community by starting with where the bottom line is and working upwards toward a common goal. For example if 2 degrees Celsius was held to be the bottom line, instead of countries collectively agreeing to broad objectives, a list of concrete actions that must be followed could be created and made binding on all countries.



The arguments for who should bear the burden of climate change are numerous and varied. While there is consensus that action must be taken, the question of who should be bearing the burden of such action is far from resolved. The global community must focus on implementation of real action rather than continuing debate over who is responsible. Blaming of other nations has to be put aside in favour of finding a solution that incorporates recognition of historical responsibility, current large emitters and the capacities of individual countries to contribute. Some possible scenarios of how this can be done have been outlined above. Ultimately the time for discussions on future action has passed. Countries must take real, tangible action to combat climate change or we risk leaving our earth in an irreversible state of decline for future generations.


Olivia Chamberlain.

Photo by Asian Development Bank.|


[1] Edward Page “Distributing the Burdens of Climate Change” (2008) 17.4 Environmental Politics 556 at 558.

[2] Alina Averchenkova, Nicholas Stern and Dimitri Zenghelis Taming the beasts of ‘burden-sharing’: an analysis of equitable mitigation actions and approaches to 2030 mitigation pledges (Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, Policy Paper, December 2014) at 6.

[3] The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (1992), art 16.

[4] The World Bank Group “World Development Indicators: Energy dependency, efficiency and carbon dioxide emissions” (2014) The World Bank.

[5] Duncan French “Developing States and International Environmental Law: The Importance of Differentiated Responsibilities” (2000) 49 International and Comparative Law Quarterly 35 at 35.

[6] The Rio Declaration above n 4, at 7.

[7] The United National Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992).

[8] The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992), art 3.1.

[9] Lavanya Rajamani “The Principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibility and the Balance of Commitments under the Climate Regime” (2000) 9 RECIEL 120 at 121.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (1998), art 3.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Katja Birr-Pedersen, Pia Frederiksen & Lasse Ringius Burden Sharing in the Context of Global Climate Change (National Environmental Research Institute Denmark, Technical Report 424, 2002) at 20.

[14] Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action “Negotiating Text” (2015) United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid, art 17.

[17] Antoine Dechezlepretre, Matthieu Glachant, Ivan Hascic, Nick Johnstone & Yann Meniere “Invention and Transfer of Climate Change Mitigation Technologies: A global Analysis” (2011) 5 Review of Environmental Economics and Policy 109 at 109.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Mexico Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (March 2015) at 2.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Technology Executive Committee “Mandates, Functions, Modalities and Rules of Procedure” (2010) United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change <>.

[22] Michael Lisowski “Playing the Two-Level Game: US President Bush’s Decision to Repudiate the Kyoto Protocol” (2002) 11 Environmental Politics 101 at 107.

[23]Xue-Du Lu Assessment of Achievements of the Lima Climate Change Conference and Perspectives on the Future (National Climate Centre China, Beijing, 2015) at 2.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Page, above n 2, at 558.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Michael Weisslitz “Rethinking the Equitable Principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibility: Differential Versus Absolute Norms of Compliance and Contribution in the Global Climate Change Context” (2002) 13.2 Colorado Journal of International Environmental Law and Policy 473 at 496.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Lee Branstetter & William Pizer Facing the Climate Change Problem in a Global Economy (National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, 2012) at 37.

[31] Andrew Hurrell & Sandeep Sengupta “Emerging Powers, North-South Relations and Global Climate Politics” (2012) 88 International Affairs 463 at 463.

[32] Ibid.

[33] International Monetary Fund “World Economic Outlook Database” (2014).

[34] Hurrell & Sengupta, above n 32, at 465.

[35] Bill Hopwood, Marry Mellor & Geoff O’Brian “Sustainable Development: Mapping Different Approaches” (2005) 13 Sustainable Development 38 at 38.

[36] Weisslitz, above n 28, at 478.

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