Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Historical Responsibility

While climate change is moving fast to further endanger the lives of many of the world’s poor living in already conflict-prone regions, international leaders and negotiators remain at odds for the intensity of GHG emissions reductions commitments. As the UNFCCC Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action (AWG-LCA) convened in their plenary session to discuss a shared vision for long-term cooperative action, there remained tensions between developing and developed countries over who holds greater responsibility to reduce emissions.

China pointed out that an important item on their negotiating agenda is ‘historical responsibility,’ and emissions reductions targets must reflect this idea. The influence of historical contributions to climate change influence present-day emissions reductions targets calls for an analysis that has not been conducted by the IPCC because the complete separation of scientific and ethical issues nearly impossible. Michael Zammit Cutajar, Chair of the AWG- LCA called for an informal Workshop to provide clarity on ‘historical responsibility’ before the group convenes at the next negotiating session in 29 October to 4 November 2009.

The amount of knowledge gained or breakthroughs in this area is debatable, however, and it seems as though this is a topic that has already been thoroughly analyzed. In 2001, Brazil proposed a study that would analyze these questions of historical responsibility. This formed the ad hoc working group for the modeling and assessment of contributions of climate change (MATCH) in November of the following year. The report released by this group found two kinds of responsibility, namely strict (or unlimited) responsibility, which reflects emissions since 1890, and limited responsibility, which limits the blame to large emitters due to previous ignorance or circumstances beyond control, therefore looking at emissions only since 1990 (the start of the UNFCCC negotiations). The results of their findings:

Although questions remain, such as whether countries should be concerned with emissions within their borders (as is currently the case), or should they also be responsible for emissions due to the production of goods and services they consume, it seems as though the historical responsibility is clearly falling on Annex I (developed) countries, especially the US. It is debatable, however, whether any further in-depth analysis of this topic will facilitate the negotiations and allow the countries to move forward. It seems as though the responsibility is clear, Annex I countries should take lead in combating climate change in order to prevent potentially disastrous threats to the environmental security of the world.

No matter what the historical realities may be, the present reality is that climate change negatively affects the lives of many in the most vulnerable climate-sensitive regions of the world. This means that already unstable, poor and conflict-prone areas of the world will experience more threats to their security as the climate changes. It is the present responsibility for all countries to act quickly in mitigating their CO2 emissions instead of arguing about who is ethically responsible to impose stricter emissions reductions targets.

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