Talk of Balance and Symmetry in COP – Watch out for nice sounding words

Isla Mujeres

Isla Mujeres (Patrick Smith Photo)

A term from the recent COP 15 and 16 process to be aware of is symmetry, or balance. When used in official press releases these terms sound great, but what they really refer to in the context of the COP negotiations is not necessarily the clear and reasonable outcome it sounds like at first pass.

Symmetry in the COP context refers to the notion that several developed countries (primarily the US) want developing countries to have “symmetrical” legal responsibilities and reduction targets as developed ones. The sticky not-so-little issue with symmetry, is that though sounding great (who doesn’t want more balance?), many negotiators, especially on the developing nations side, consider this term to be unfair. Here’s their reasoning. Developing nations were not the main cause the problem of high greenhouse gas emissions leading to anthropogenic climate change. Developed, industrialized nations were. (A key word to note here is were.) Furthermore, developing nations, especially Africa, will more than likely bear the most negative impacts of climate change, partially due to their higher vulnerability. So, they reason, why should developing countries equally/symmetrically share in the legal responsibility of fixing the problem–of paying for mitigating GHGs and adaptation measures to climate change?

Instead, they want to maintain the asymmetric (or ‘differentiated’) principles of the Kyoto Protocol–which they maintain is the fairest means of allocating responsibility. Indeed the split between Annex II countries and developing nations under the Kyoto Protocol revolves around the concept that Annex II countries are slated to pay for the costs of developing nations. This notion was central to the development of the Clean Development Mechanism as well. Developing nations are not required in this framework to reduce their emissions unless developed countries provide the funding and technology to do so.

So,on a basic level, asymmetry implies that if the causal factors of an issue/situation are not equal, then the degree of responsibility to fix that issue should correspond to the degree of cause of the problem. This is linked to the Polluter Pays Principle in certain respects. Applied to anthropogenic climate change and its impacts, this means that developed nations, having contributed the most to the problem (aka being the biggest polluters) should have asymmetric (more) responsibility in fixing it. While this is a simplified explanation, it goes to the heart of the standoff between developed and developing nations.

Fan Jai Zhuang in Anyang City, Henan province, China

Fan Jai Zhuang: Anyang City, Henan province, China

The problem is that this issue is not simple. ‘Developing’ countries are not all the same. This is partially because a lot of time has passed, and a lot of development has occurred between the Kyoto Protocol in the early 90’s and now, twenty years later.  Africa is not like China. India is not like Bolivia. So why should they be grouped together and treated the same? So part of the current fuss is that countries like the US are saying that countries like India and China have to get off the free ride ‘developing’ train. While India recently revealed a surprise change of heart on this matter, announcing that it would consider making legally binding emissions commitments at COP 16 in Cancun, China has staunchly held its ground.

So, the devil is in the details. Yes, newly developed and industrialized nations have a lower responsibility to make reparations for current levels of greenhouse gases based on their history of emitting less than developed nations. BUT, they do have a responsibility to do something about better mitigating their recent, current and future emissions. Do they not?

The task ahead is to sort out the Gordian knot how these different responsibilities should pan out. My guess is that unless the US can strong arm other countries into submitting to their notions of symmetry by COP 17, we will still be left without any binding agreements, or only weak ones, and will continue to have to rely on unilateral initiatives to mitigate and adapt to climate change at the national and sub national level.