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COP21 Guide #4: Differentiation

The principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” (CBDR) is stated in the Rio Declaration (Principle 7). It is reasserted in the preamble of the UNFCCC and in the article 3 as a guiding principle:

“The 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.”

This principle means that all parties under the Convention have a common responsibility to address climate change. However, as the developed countries emitted the most greenhouse gases (GHG) in the past – the so-called historical emissions – they have to assume a bigger responsibility than the developing countries. The principle thus accounts for the notion of equity. The idea of differentiated responsibilities ask developed countries to:

  1. Immediately reduce their GHG emissions
  2. Provide new and additional financial resources to meet the agreed full costs incurred by developing country Parties in complying with their obligations
  3. Assist the developing country Parties that are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change in meeting costs of adaptation to these adverse effects
  4. Facilitate the transfer of environmentally sound technology and know-how to developing countries (technology transfer)

The principle of CBDR is not a legal obligation. However, it has provided the legal basis for the Kyoto Protocol’s instruments and mechanisms designed to achieve the objectives of the Kyoto Protocol and the UNFCCC in general. In the Kyoto Protocol, the first implication of the principle has been materialised through the differentiation between Annex 1 countries, which have internationally binding emission reduction targets and Non-Annex 1 countries, which do not have any commitments in the protocol but have to continue to implement the Convention’s commitments "in order to achieve sustainable development". The CBDR is continually reasserted by the developing countries that are associating economic growth and the use of fossil fuels. The argument is that reducing their GHG emissions would prevent them from growing economically.

However, this binary geopolitical vision of international relations between developed/developing countries has changed since the time of the writing of the Kyoto Protocol. The rise of newly industrialised countries gathered in the so called BASIC group (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) provides a new deal in the negotiations. BASIC countries are not only major emerging countries; they also became major emitters (since 2007, the CO2 emissions of non-Annex 1 regions bypassed the Annex 1 ones). So, to reach an ambitious agreement, their commitments are essential. This is one of the reasons why they, along with the US, were the authors of the Copenhagen Accord and will continue to be one of the most influential players in the negotiations. It is possible that this point will be solved in the negotiations in Paris.


This articles is part of our COP climate guide. The other articles in this series are:

  1. What is at stake in Paris?
  2. Human rights and climate change
  3. Climate financing
  4. Differentiation
  5. Mitigation
  6. Adaption
  7. Loss and damage

Learn more about the climate negotiations from FYEG's COP report which you can download here.