COP21: Delivering on differentiation

Reading time: 3 minutes
6 December 2015

Damian Ryan, Head of International Policy, The Climate Group, writes about the 21st UN climate conference, COP21, in Paris. You can follow our activities at

With week two of COP21 in Paris about to get underway question marks still hang over how to bridge the key divides that were evident in week one.

One of these divides is the issue of differentiation. But what does this actually mean and what’s driving division?

Climate talks are often described as a binary negotiation between ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries. There is a degree of accuracy in this characterization, not least because the original UN climate treaty in 1992 created a defined list of developed countries and introduced the principle of ‘Common But Differentiated Responsibility and Respective Capabilities’ (CBDR-RC).

In reality though, the picture is more complicated.

As one might expect from a process involving 196 countries, groups have formed over the years that bring like-minded countries together. This is true of both developed and developing countries.

Twenty odd years ago when the UNFCCC was established the picture was a fairly simple one. Crudely speaking the division then was indeed binary. On one side was the Group of 77 (G77) and China, which effectively represented more or less all of the developing world. And on the other side stood the EU along with the Umbrella Group, which represented the non-EU developed countries, including the US, Japan, Canada and Australia.

changing economies

In the last five to ten years, however, the landscape has become much more complex, reflecting the political and economic changes that have occurred in the past two decades, as well as the impact of climate change on some countries.

The main changes have been to the G77 and China, which although still acts as the main developing country group at COPs, has been joined by a host of others. Some like AOSIS (the Association of Small Island States), the LDCs (Least Developed Countries) and the Africa Group have been around for many years. Others, such as ALBA and AILAC (representing the socialist and market-orientated governments of South America, respectively), the BASICs (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) and the LMDC Group (Like-Minded Developing Countries – more about them below), are recent arrivals.

The creation of these groups reflect the fact that the national interests of the developing countries have become more diverse and divided over the last twenty years. In simple terms, this means that the G77 can no longer speak for all its members on all issues, all the time - although it still plays a powerful role.

The implications of this greater diversity in developing country voices has been seen in the UN climate talks for some years. Indeed, it was an alliance of AOSIS, the EU, AILAC and other progressive countries at COP17 in South Africa in 2011 that resulted in the negotiating process that has taken us to Paris.

Last week at COP21 we also saw the impact of divergent positions among developing and developed countries, which slowed the pace of talks. The key actor here was arguably the LMDC group. Comprising some 25 countries, including Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, China and India, the group has become the champion of what might be thought of as the traditional G77 position.

Established just a few years ago, the LMDCs staunchly defend the CBDR-RC principle and the 1992 division of countries into clearly defined developed and developing country camps. They also hew closely to the position that all finance, technology transfer and capacity building must come from developed countries, as laid out in the UN climate convention.

This positioning has not only put them at odds with developed countries (unsurprisingly), but also some other developing countries, such as those from AOSIS, who want ambitious effort from all major emitters.

LMDC differences

So what exactly is driving the LMDC position? There are arguably a number of factors.

In the case of certain group members it would appear to be a simple calculation of national interest. Saudi Arabia, for example, along with other oil exporters in the group, believes that a minimalist deal in Paris will be to their economic benefit if it slows the transition away from fossil fuels.

For others, it may reflect the difficulty in dealing with their political and economic transition on the international stage and what this entails. Increased prosperity in some LMDC countries for example, means they now have increased political and economic influence regionally or globally. This is a good thing.

The corollary, however, is that there is also increased expectation from other countries for these parties to shoulder greater international responsibilities – something political elites in some LMDCs have not yet embraced. Supporting the LMDC position provides a way to shield these countries from such responsibilities.

Perhaps the main factor, however, is the need to push back against a competing narrative championed by developed countries (the Umbrella Group especially) which is perceived by LMDCs as unfair and unequitable.

Very simply, this narrative states that the world has changed since 1992, with emerging economies in particular now needing to play a role commensurate with their emissions and economic capacities. This is not a new position from developed countries, but as negotiations move to their dénouement, the intensity of opposition to it from the LMDC group has become louder.

In truth, the positions of both the LMDCs and developed countries have legitimacy. The LMDCs for example, are self-evidently correct that developing countries still remain poorer than developed ones.

But the Umbrella Group is also right to point out that many developing countries, particularly some of the LMDCs, have the capacity now to do much more, in line with the ‘Respective Capabilities’ part of the CBDR principle.

shared misconception

The two camps also have something in common: namely, that both still share the misperception that climate action is a burden to be avoided rather than an opportunity to build prosperous low carbon economies and communities.

In the case of the developed countries, this is seen in the lack of sufficient ambition in many Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). This fact is made clear when you consider what is happening at the sub-national level in many developed countries.

California and South Australia, for instance, have far more ambitious climate targets and policies than their federal governments. This shows that LMDC calls for greater action from the likes of the US and Australia are not unreasonable.

Meanwhile, the line taken by LMDCs that climate action is too costly and will undermine poverty reduction and sustainable development efforts is simply no longer the case.

The technologies that are needed to cut emissions and create prosperous, sustainable economies are the same. They are also becoming ever more affordable than their high carbon alternatives. In rural India and much of Africa, communities now have the potential to skip an entire era of technology and adopt clean renewable energy and transport systems.

With just a few days of talks left, the differentiation issue cannot be left to fester, sucking in and wasting precious political capital. Recognizing the reality of the low carbon transition already underway, and the huge opportunity it provides for all countries, offers ministers a means to move away from a zero-sum negotiating approach and find a common landing zone.

Differentiation is a vital issue to address, but it should not be an obstacle to delivering an ambitious, equitable and common Paris Agreement.

By Damian Ryan, Head of International Policy, The Climate Group



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