Developed-vs.-Developing Rift Rises in Climate Talks

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By Dean Scott

Oct. 22 — The more than 20-year debate over the degree to which developed and developing nations should commit to actions under a global climate deal has reared its head once again at a pivotal week of negotiations in Bonn, but the debate is unlikely to scuttle the agreement negotiators hope to reach at a high-level end-of-year summit in Paris.

The U.S. and other developed countries have long prodded China, India, and other rapidly developing nations to move away from their insistence that climate action should rest largely on the shoulders of industrialized nations. China is today the world's top greenhouse gas emitter and the United States is second.

Developing nations point to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change—the 1992 parent treaty to the global talks now under way—that set out a principle of “common but differentiated” responsibilities. That principle suggested action on climate change should be commensurate with what a nation could afford or achieve technologically.

In recent years, many developing nations have accepted, at least around the margins, the idea that they also have to act, and both China and India have put on the table what negotiators consider significant offers to address their emissions ahead of the Paris talks.

But the two-decade-long split over differentiation has bubbled up repeatedly at the Oct. 19-23 Bonn talks in separate discussions on finance, low-carbon technology assistance and how quickly developing nations should match industrialized countries in meeting requirements for measuring, reporting and verifying their pledged actions

Distinguishing Between Responsibilities?

Negotiators opened the Bonn talks with a fairly concise draft of the Paris deal that had been whittled down earlier in the month to just 20 pages. That version kept repeated distinctions between developed and developing countries to a minimum. On the other hand, it also didn't define what constitutes a developed or developing country, another issue that will likely only be resolved in Paris.

But within the first day or so of the Bonn talks, negotiators split off into seven “spinoff” groups, each tasked with taking on sections of the draft deal. There, negotiators from developing nations pressed for dozens of additional references to either developed or developing nations that had been removed by the co-chairs.

But the U.S., the European Union and other developed parties are adamant the deal stay clear of making such overt distinctions, given the rapid rise in emissions from developing countries.

Global Approach Agreed in Durban 

The U.S. has for years pointed to a 2011 deal by the nearly 200 nations in Durban, South Africa, that launched the current negotiations, which said the deal in Paris should be one “applicable to all” nations. That, the U.S. argues, should have ended any debate over whether there should be two separate groups with separate responsibilities in a climate agreement.

The head of the UN climate secretariat overseeing the talks, Christiana Figueres, told Bloomberg BNA Oct. 22 that it shouldn't be surprising developing nations are attempting to add language distinguishing between their responsibilities or roles and those of developed nations under the climate deal. Doing so wouldn't necessarily be inconsistent with what negotiators agreed to in South Africa four years ago, she added—particularly if negotiators could agree to something that would resolve the issue that could be “expressed at the top” of the Paris deal.

“You can't stay forever at that sort of the principle level—you have to figure out how that [language] at the principle level gets implemented,” Figueres said, in finance, adaptation, and other sections in ways that that reflect the more global approach of the Durban deal. But any language most likely will also have to reconcile the Durban deal with the principle of differentiation set out in the 1992 UN convention, Figueres said.

“Understanding how these principles get implemented and expressed in each of these topics—I think that's the big question,” as negotiators head into the final day of the Bonn talks, Figueres said.

Differentiation Terms Repeatedly Added

One gauge of the push by developing nations for repeated mentions of developing versus developed nation responsibilities is the increasing use of either term as the text has evolved this week in Bonn. Negotiators began the talks with a 20-page draft text, compiled by co-chairs of a UN negotiating track earlier this month, which used the term “developing” only 17 times.

Bonn negotiators moved quickly to produce a revised text that added 14 pages to the co-chairs' version, and used the term “developing” 23 times, although the language is only suggested and not accepted by negotiators. In recent days, similar additions have been made repeatedly in “spinoff” groups of negotiators tasked with finding consensus on different sections, including mitigation and finance.

A definitions section, which in the co-chairs' version made no mention of developed or developing nations, had added nearly a dozen references by mid-week referring to specific responsibilities or criteria for developed countries.

Varying Responsibilities Detailed

By contrast, the co-chairs' draft section on definitions was bare-bones—barely a paragraph. It only proposed to define for example what is meant by the term “party” to the climate agreement and define voting procedures, with no mention of developed versus developing nation responsibilities.

Among the changes proposed: one to allow developing nations to adjust their climate pledges in the future if they are “severely affected” by an extreme weather event.

Negotiators and observers continued to speculate late Oct. 22 on whether consensus could be reached on a host of outstanding issues on finance, adaptation and other areas by the scheduled end of the Bonn talks Oct. 23. But there was little doubt on the outcome on the renewed developed-versus-developing nation debate, given U.S. and other developed nations' objections.

“I just don't think in the end these distinctions will be broadly acceptable” to developed nations, said Elliot Diringer, who is tracking the Bonn talks for the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES).

“That doesn't mean you expunge every term that says developed or developing from the agreement—there may be places where that's necessary—but it won't define the essential character and structure of the agreement,” Diringer said.

“If there's too much of this, developed nations would not agree to it,” given the global commitment by all nations toward a Paris deal “applicable to all” agreed to in Durban, Diringer said. “And then, well, we'd have no agreement in Paris.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Dean Scott in Bonn at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Greg Henderson at