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U.S., EU, Reject Brazilian Call for Climate Equity Metric

November 14, 2013

Rich Nations Block Push to Count Past Pollution at Warming Talks

Beijing's business district. Photographer: Feng Li/Getty Images

The U.S. and European Union blocked a proposal supported by 130 nations including Brazil and China that would use pollution levels dating back to the industrial revolution to help set limits on emissions in the future.

Australia and Canada joined in opposing discussion of the plan when it was introduced Nov. 11 at the start of two weeks of United Nations-sponsored talks Warsaw. Developing nations are still pressing for it to be included in the discussions, said Ambassador Jose Antonio Marcondes de Carvalho, the lead envoy for Brazil, which authored the plan.

“They flatly reject that possibility of at least discussing it,” Marcondes de Carvalho said in an interview yesterday. “Our proposal is meant to make available for countries a metric of their historical responsibility in terms of temperature rise. It would be one of the elements in the future agreement.”

The proposal goes to the heart of one of the most divisive concepts in the talks -- the notion of equity. Developing countries say that because industrialized nations have been emitting greenhouse gases for 200 years, they must bear the most responsibility to rein in the pollution blamed for global warming. Richer countries see a focus on the past as a tool by poorer nations to avoid making bigger efforts to curtail their own emissions.

American View

“Temperature is a lagging indicator and does not show up until well after emissions have occurred,” U.S. envoy Kim Carnahan told delegates on Nov. 11. “Such an approach would provide some countries with cover to act in a manner that is much less ambitious than their current capabilities.”

Envoys aim to craft by 2015 a new treaty to fight climate change that would be legally binding for all countries from 2020. That would break down a firewall between industrialized and developing nations enshrined in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which set no mandatory goals for poorer countries. The aim is to keep the increase in global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) since industrialization.

Because richer countries have emitted carbon dioxide since the industrial revolution more than two centuries ago, a focus on past greenhouse gas output as a basis for future commitments would assign them the biggest portion of the reductions. That would deflect attention from China, the world’s biggest emitter, and India. The U.S. is ranked second.

Industrial Group

Carnahan was joined by delegates from the EU, Norway, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Israel in opposing Brazil’s plan. The G77, a group of more than 130 developing nations, along with China have since thrown their support behind it.

The division underscores the gap between richer and poorer nations about how to handle reductions. The meeting in Warsaw is putting in place the initial building blocks for the 2015 treaty, including a framework for how all nations will pledge to limit pollution levels. It hasn’t been decided yet when the actual pledges must be made.

The proposal to use historical emissions as a guide isn’t going to go away, according to Jennifer Morgan, director of Climate at the World Resources Institute, a Washington-based research group monitoring the talks.

“It’s an indication of the level of importance given to the issue of equity,” Morgan said in an interview in Warsaw. “The countries who have emitted the least are the most vulnerable to climate change, like the Philippines. They haven’t done anything, and they’re suffering from the emissions that others produce.”

Measurement Program

Under the measure first proposed by Brazil, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change would devise a methodology for nations to calculate their total output of greenhouse gases since 1850 to determine their historical responsibility for global warming. This would help inform their own pledges for reducing future emissions.

“While domestically self-defining its own mitigation contribution to the 2015 agreement, each party should have as reference its historical responsibilities for climate change,” Brazil wrote in the plan.

Envoys from developed countries said they’re concerned about the narrowness of the measure and the capacity of the IPCC to do the work by 2015, when the UN intends to wrap up work on the treaty. The IPCC is in the middle of producing a comprehensive assessment of global warming that it last made in 2007.

Risk of Delay

“The IPCC procedures don’t allow for such a rapid response, and this risks delaying our important work,” said Geert Fremout, a diplomat from Belgium who spoke for the EU on the issue.

Marcondes de Carvalho of Brazil said delegates should let the IPCC decide whether the work is “doable.” For Tasneem Essop, who leads the delegation from the environmental charity WWF, the proposal could break politicization of the debate.

“The idea that you have an independent science body doing an independent analysis of historical emissions takes it out of the political realm,” Essop said.

Delegates including Fremout and Carnahan also made procedural objections, stating that Brazil shouldn’t have raised the issue in a forum called the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice, when a separate stream of negotiations has been tasked with devising the 2015 agreement.

‘Not Afraid’

“We are not afraid of talking about historical emissions,” Juergen Lefevere, deputy delegation chief for the European Commission said in an interview. “The issue we have is we do not want to talk about historical emissions as narrowly defined by Brazil in a process that is spun off” outside the main stream of discussions for the 2015 deal.

The focus on past emissions is important because global warming is caused by the long-term accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, said Su Wei, lead negotiator for China.

“We cannot forget about historical responsibility,” said Su. “The current climate change was caused really by historical emissions of greenhouse gases. It’s an accumulation of 200 years of emissions.”

Su also alluded to the principles of “equity and CBDR,” UN shorthand for “Common but Differentiated Responsibilities.” That means that while all nations should tackle climate change, their efforts should differ according to their responsibility for the problem and their capacity to fix it. For the EU’s Lefevere, that means owning up to emissions yet to be made.

“It’s not just responsibility for past emissions,” Lefevere said. “It’s responsibilities for current and future emissions.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Alex Morales in London at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Reed Landberg at

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