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Common but differentiated carbon responsibilities?

By Dr Jim Ormond and Jane Fiona Cumming, Article 13

In 62 days world leaders will meet in Paris to discuss, and hopefully agree, new binding agreements on how to reduce GHG emissions and mitigate the worst effects of global climatic change.

 

Two key phrases which are likely to be heard across the negotiating table in Paris will be “common but differentiated responsibilities” and ‘historical legacy’.

 

These two terms reflect the fact that there are problems which are a common concern to mankind. But, given substantive inequalities between nations, responsibilities for producing solutions to these problems should be differentiated. For instance, in the case of climate change, this refers to the differing economic growth of nations and to the fact that certain countries have been emitting significant quantities of GHG emissions for longer than others.

 

If we look back over the past 12 months, the list of nations ’most responsible’ for climate change during 2013 would be:

  1.   China: emitted 7,216 million tonnes (MT) (16.4% of total world-wide emissions)
  2.   US: emitted 6,931 MT (15.7%)
  3.   Brazil: emitted 2,856 MT (6.5%)
  4.   Indonesia: emitted 2,046 MT (4.6%)
  5.   Russia: emitted 2,028 MT (4.6%).

However if we look back further, from the start of the industrial revolution (1850) to 2007, the list would be rather different:

  1.   US: emitted 339,174 MT (28.8%)
  2.   China: emitted 105,915 MT (9.0%)
  3.   Russia: emitted 94,679 MT (8.0%)
  4.   Germany: emitted 81,194.5 MT (6.9%)
  5.   UK: emitted 68,763 MT (5.8%).

Looking at these two lists, it becomes clear that whilst climate change represents a common concern to all humankind, the responsibilities for producing solutions and cutting GHG emissions should be, to an extent, differentiated.

 

What about the historical legacy of businesses?

This debate is of relevance to business leaders. Just as certain nations have historically large footprints, the same applies to global corporations. A report published in 2013 listed the world’s largest historical emitters. As one may expect, this list is made up largely of long-standing energy corporations. For example, Chevron and ExxonMobil take the top two spots, accounting for almost 100 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide between them, representing 7.74% of the total. BP came in at third with 35.4 gigatonnes. The list also included extractive companies. For example, mining company BHP Billiton was ranked as 19th-largest polluter, contributing 7.24 billion tonnes.

 

Whilst this report must come with a number of caveats (e.g. these companies have also facilitated rapid economic growth and improvements in living standards), it raises important questions about how organisations should set targets and take responsibility for their impact on climate change…

  1.   When do you start measuring your impact from?
  2.   Do companies as well as nations have differentiated responsibility for GHG emission reduction?
  3.   Should this temporal historical principle extend to other dimensions of environmental (e.g. biodiversity impact) and social impact (e.g. poverty reduction)?

Sources

  1.   Heede, R. (2013) Tracing anthropogenic carbon dioxide and methane emissions to fossil fuel and cement producers, 1854–2010.
  2.   Climate change Polluters list points the way to combating climate change - Link
  3.   Which nations are most responsible for climate change? - Link
  4.   The Centre for International Sustainable Development Law - Link
  5.   Definition of Common but differentiated responsibilities - Link

In 62 days world leaders will meet in Paris to discuss, and hopefully agree, new binding agreements on how to reduce GHG emissions and mitigate the worst effects of global climatic change.

Two key phrases which are likely to be heard across the negotiating table in Paris will be “common but differentiated responsibilities” and ‘historical legacy’.

These two terms reflect the fact that there are problems which are a common concern to mankind. But, given substantive inequalities between nations, responsibilities for producing solutions to these problems should be differentiated. For instance, in the case of climate change, this refers to the differing economic growth of nations and to the fact that certain countries have been emitting significant quantities of GHG emissions for longer than others.

If we look back over the past 12 months, the list of nations ’most responsible’ for climate change during 2013 would be:

  1.   China: emitted 7,216 million tonnes (MT) (16.4% of total world-wide emissions)
  2.   US: emitted 6,931 MT (15.7%)
  3.   Brazil: emitted 2,856 MT (6.5%)
  4.   Indonesia: emitted 2,046 MT (4.6%)
  5.   Russia: emitted 2,028 MT (4.6%).

However if we look back further, from the start of the industrial revolution (1850) to 2007, the list would be rather different:

  1.   US: emitted 339,174 MT (28.8%)
  2.   China: emitted 105,915 MT (9.0%)
  3.   Russia: emitted 94,679 MT (8.0%)
  4.   Germany: emitted 81,194.5 MT (6.9%)
  5.   UK: emitted 68,763 MT (5.8%).

Looking at these two lists, it becomes clear that whilst climate change represents a common concern to all humankind, the responsibilities for producing solutions and cutting GHG emissions should be, to an extent, differentiated.

What about the historical legacy of businesses?

This debate is of relevance to business leaders. Just as certain nations have historically large footprints, the same applies to global corporations. A report published in 2013 listed the world’s largest historical emitters. As one may expect, this list is made up largely of long-standing energy corporations. For example, Chevron and ExxonMobil take the top two spots, accounting for almost 100 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide between them, representing 7.74% of the total. BP came in at third with 35.4 gigatonnes. The list also included extractive companies. For example, mining company BHP Billiton was ranked as 19th-largest polluter, contributing 7.24 billion tonnes.

Whilst this report must come with a number of caveats (e.g. these companies have also facilitated rapid economic growth and improvements in living standards), it raises important questions about how organisations should set targets and take responsibility for their impact on climate change…

  1.   When do you start measuring your impact from?
  2.   Do companies as well as nations have differentiated responsibility for GHG emission reduction?
  3.   Should this temporal historical principle extend to other dimensions of environmental (e.g. biodiversity impact) and social impact (e.g. poverty reduction)?

Sources

  1.   Heede, R. (2013) Tracing anthropogenic carbon dioxide and methane emissions to fossil fuel and cement producers, 1854–2010.
  2.   Climate change Polluters list points the way to combating climate change - Link
  3.   Which nations are most responsible for climate change? - Link
  4.   The Centre for International Sustainable Development Law - Link
  5.   Definition of Common but differentiated responsibilities - Link
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