In this blog, Meine van Noordwijk from World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), discusses the concept of 'Common but Differentiated Responsibilities' (CBDR) in recent international negotiations.
“The real tragedy of the commons is that people believe collective action cannot effectively defend common interests”, with words similar to that Ruth Meinzen-Dick opened a session on commons and property rights at the global landscapes forum in Paris early December.
A few kilometers away from that forum international climate negotiators were struggling with another type of commons: the ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ that is central to the UNFCCC climate convention, but proved to be contentious in many years of negotiation. In 1992, the catch phrase, ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ (CBDR), became part of international environmental law at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro. As a principle of international environmental law, CBDR implies that all nations are responsible for global environmental problems but not equally so. In 2015 CBDR became a major stumbling block in negotiations over the text for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). In the Paris Agreement, however, and in the declarations of many countries afterwards, the words fairness, transparency and CBDR were among the most frequently mentioned terms.
At the post-2015 SDG negotiations at UN Headquarters in New York, there was a lengthy discussion on CBDR throughout the week. Many developed countries, including EU, US, Japan and Canada, asked to remove reference to the principle. Most developing countries, including China, India, Group 77 of developing countries (G-77) led by South Africa, called for retaining, or even strengthening, the draft text’s language on CBDR. Examples of US and India help us understand why the principle has been, and remains, contentious internationally.
The US stated that its objections to incorporating CBDR were because it is ‘an historical conceit steeped in the North-South divide’ that does not apply to a universal development agenda, universally applied. However, India, in identifying six ‘myths’ about CBDR, said universality does not mean uniformity. The myths presented were: 1) CBDR opposes the principle of universality; 2) it is an historic ‘relic’ and no longer relevant; 3) it is only applicable to the environmental dimension; 4) it is only a political principle, with no technical relevance; 5) the North-South divide has vanished; and 6) it implies inaction by some countries. The representative said that CBDR is, rather, a call for action, ambition and equity, with equity being a fundamental principle that underpins the UN Charter and the Millennium Declaration.
Amid all of this discussion at the event, and more conducted over the decades, there is one question that never seems to be asked: ‘How is CBDR applied nationally and locally in those countries that emphasize its importance in the international arena? For example, the Government of India’s exposé of the myths of CBDR did not include reference to domestic issues. Yet, India has made major steps in creating a more level playing field between its states by including maintaining forest cover in the formula that allocates federal resources to the states.
We live in an era of ‘polycentric governance’ where the legitimacy and effectiveness of any layer of governance is bounded by the way it treats the levels below it as well as how it negotiates with the levels above. Commonly, country negotiators see any question of what happens within a country as an infringement on their ‘sovereignty’, which is one of the highest principles in the game. Sovereignty, in practice, means that questions about CBDR application within a negotiating country cannot be asked. They impinge on national sovereignty. As a result, the way countries deal with indigenous people and how ‘free and prior informed consent’ are handled have taken a huge amount of negotiation time, without convincing results for effective polycentric governance as yet.
Maybe the quest for CBDR plus sovereignty internationally would be more credible, legitimate and effective if it were accompanied by assurances that the same principles do apply domestically.
For example, Indonesia has committed itself to increase the area with firm ‘community-based forest management’ rules from the current 1% to 5% of its forests in the coming years; so maybe it can ask for 5% of CBDR in the international arena, if such a concept exists...
So we do see small but significant steps towards domestic CBDR in the world’s second and fourth most-populous countries, and hope for more, so that in international arenas CBDR will gain a (morally, politically) stronger footing now that it is reaffirmed in the Paris Agreement on the urgency of reducing the rate of climate change.
Sections of this story have been adapted from the Earth Negotiations Bulletin 32(19) by IISD Reporting Services. Summary of the Sixth Session of the Intergovernmental Negotiation Process on the Post-2015 Development Agenda