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Common But Differentiated Responsibility - A Course Discussion

As part of our course discussion on a 'cognitive toolkit' for climate change, we also looked at the principle of "Common But Differentiated Responsibilities" (CBDR). In the following, we would like to give an insight into how we approached this topic.



LECTURE: The course text gives a short introduction:


Common But Differentiated Responsibility (CBDR)

The phrase common but differentiated responsibility is playing an increasing role in international law. It points to the fact that problems which are a common concern to mankind - such as climate change - affect all and are affected by all nations to differing degrees. Therefore, the responsibilities in producing solutions should also be differentiated. This principle is found in the UNFCCC and in the Kyoto Protocol. With regard to climate change, there are two considerations in the application of the CBDR principle: (a) the cumulative responsibility of countries for the problem (historical as well as current responsibility); (b) the ability of counties to deal with the problem in technical and economic terms.



ANIMATION: DiploFoundation also produced a short animated video clip to elaborate the principle further. We used this as an opportunity to experiment with various forms of communication and learning tools:



ASSIGNMENT: Last but not least, participants of the 2011 climate change diplomacy course were asked to reflect on this principle in more detail in one of the weekly course assignments:

"Please explain the meaning of this concept, and describe where and how you find it implemented in the Kyoto Protocol. Do you find it a useful tool to guide future global negotiations on climate change? How, if at all, should it be reflected in a post-Kyoto Protocol global climate change deal?"



SHARE and COMMENT: Here, we invite participants to share their answers or part of their answers and to discuss the views of their colleagues. We also look forward to commenst and questions from non-course participants.


The page will be open for comments from Saturday, October 15.

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Comment by Mrs Patricia Dovi Sampson on November 14, 2011 at 16:45

Patricia Dovi Sampson (Mrs.)

The phrase common but differentiated responsibility is a statement in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) which means all parties (countries) under the convention have a common responsibility to fight climate change.

The point however is that some countries (developed countries) have in the past released so much green house gases into the atmosphere through their development activities and this is what the experts call historical emissions.

The CBDR is said to have has two matrices. The first is the common responsibility, which arises from the concept of common heritage and common concern of humankind, and reflects the duty of States of equally sharing the burden of environmental protection for common resources; the second is the differentiated responsibility, which addresses substantive equality: unequal material, social and economic situations across States; different historical contributions to global environmental problems; and financial, technological and structural capacity to tackle those global problems. In this sense the principle establishes a conceptual framework for an equitable allocation of the costs of global environmental protection.

The novelty of the CBDR is the emergence of the historical responsibility dimension. This aspect and the inequality of economic, social and institutional development conditions generate different priorities and agendas across countries, which must be reconciled in the international forum where nations meet to tackle common environmental, economic and social issues. Another consequence of the principle is, for some scholars, that it entails a duty to participate in international efforts to address global environmental problems.
According to Mc Manus Kelly, common concern and the shared responsibility of humankind to address climate change underpin the UNFCCC and are a longstanding notion of international environmental law.

Differentiated responsibility is based upon both historical responsibility of States and differing capacities of States to address climate change. The concept is described and implemented in the Kyoto Protocol through the expression of fairness to all parties of the UNFCCC/Kyoto Protocol. This is subsequently addressed via the concept of historical responsibility where emphasis is placed on the fact that the bulk of responsibility is placed on those who have most contributed to- and benefited from- the build-up of carbon in the atmosphere.

I agree concept is a useful tool to guide future global negotiations on climate change. This is because the concept has been incorporated into multitudes of Multilateral Environmental Agreements both Regulatory and Policy Aspects.

It also somehow offers the best way forward toward the much-desired goal of sustainable development and finds its origins in equity considerations and equity principles in international law.

The practical consequences of the CBDR are that differential obligations are imposed on the parties to a Multilateral Environmental Agreement. The prime example is the Kyoto Protocol where mainly developed countries have quantified emissions reduction obligations under the agreement. Additionally, the UNFCCC) and the Kyoto Protocol establish general obligations of cooperation towards technology transfer, and provide for financial assistance for mitigation and adaptation to developing countries through the Global Environmental Facility (GEF).

In conclusion I wish to state that environmental issues appear in many different but related guises, from climate change to resource conservation, energy efficiency and toxic waste. Central to the climate change issue is the continuing production of Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions as a by-product of industrial and commercial life, including energy production and consumption, ma

Comment by Norma E. Cherry-Fevrier on November 10, 2011 at 17:21

The principle of “Common but Differentiated Responsibility” (CBDR) was developed to differentiate between countries in international environmental law (Scarpace, undated, p. 2).    This means that although there must be common responsibility in protecting the environment, in the differentiated aspect of the principle, responsibility varies depending on level of development, amount of resources and institutional capabilities of countries (Mumma and Hodas, 2008, p. 628).  It therefore puts developed countries at the forefront of reducing Green House Gas (GHG) emissions (Bortscheller, 2010, p. 50).  Nevertheless, a functional solution to the problem of climate change remains elusive, even as many countries have agreed that the problem exists (Bortscheller, 2010, p. 53).

The CBDR Principle is referred to Article 10 of the Kyoto Protocol (KP) and states that: ‘All Parties, taking into account their common but differentiated responsibilities and their specific national and regional development priorities, objectives and circumstances…’ (Kyoto Protocol, 1998, p. 9).  Article 10 makes it obligatory that parties engage in management and other programmes to reduce GHG emissions on the basis of the CBDR principle.  The adoption of the CBDR principle inherently means that developed countries must take the lead in addressing the global problem of climate change (Mumma and Hodas, 2008, p. 625). 

According to Scarpace (undated, p.7), the KP is a clear application of the CBDR principle in that:

It sets legally binding emission limits . . . it requires that developed countries and countries with economies in transition limit their GHG emissions by “assigned amounts” . . . developed countries must reduce their emission to levels  below 1990 levels and states with economies in transition can use a different base year in their calculations.

Conversely, Bortscheller (2010, p. 51) states that the CDBR principle is a sound principle, but with a flawed application.  Notwithstanding, the KP is a useful tool that should be used as a basis to guide future global climate change negotiations.  This should be done providing its limitations such as: allowing developing countries to industrialise (Scarpace, undated, p. 15) and not including obligations for emerging economies that are large emitters, for example China (Bortscheller, 2010, p. 51), are addressed.  Responsibility must therefore be placed on developing countries so that the foundational principles of sustainable development are not undermined (Mumma and Hodas, 2008, p. 625).  Only then will the CBDR principle function effectively.

Moreover, Mumma and Hodas (2008, p. 633) state that the CBDR principle is a “principle that must be rehabilitated in the negotiation of a post-Kyoto climate change mitigation regime.”  Therefore, in order for the application of the CBDR principle to be successful, it must be rehabilitated to include the following: (i) countries must be allocated emissions entitlements as part of a global cap and should be based on the principle of intra-generational equity, (ii) allocate allowable emissions based on a formula (iii) allow countries to use flexible mechanisms in adhering to reduction commitments and (iv) provide for technology transfer and capacity building to poor countries that are on the path of sustainable development.

In conclusion, the CBDR principle as integrated in Article 10 of the KP separates developed and developing countries in their responsibilities to fight climate change, based on their economic and technical capacities (Bortscheller, 2010, p. 49).  The CBDR principle is a useful tool that should be used to guide future climate change negotiations (Bortscheller 2010, p. 51), provided that the weaknesses associated with its current application are revisited, strengthened and reflected in a robust post-Kyoto agreement.  This is necessary to get more countries to commit to reducing their levels of GHG emissions./body>

Comment by Romie Nghitevelekwa@undp.org on November 10, 2011 at 17:10

The Principle of “Common But Differentiated Responsibility”

            In the global environment and climate change fraternity “Common But Differentiated Responsibility (CBDR)” is a principle developed in view of differentiated causes of environmental problems by States. Under this principle, States have common but differentiated responsibilities in addressing these challenges including climate change. According to the UNFCCC Article 3 – “parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of future and present generations of human kind on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibility and respective capabilities”[1]. The CBDR of States assigns assign the lead of combating climate change and adverse effects thereof to developed countries – given their greater contribution to climate change through GHG emissions. The lead is expected to be in form of reducing their GHG emissions, providing financial and technical resources to developing countries for adaptation measures.

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 UNFCCC in general. In terms of where and how the CBDR principle is implemented in the Kyoto Protocol is through the article that stipulates priorities and commitments for developed and developing countries – where developed countries are legally obligated or they commit to mitigate their emissions in accordance with the targets and timelines; and where developing countries are legally obligated or commit to develop in a sustainable manner and take measures to adapt to the effects of climate change. Further, the implementation of the CBDR in the Kyoto Protocol is in terms o the mechanisms and instruments i.e. CDM, Carbon Emission Trading and Joint Implementation.

The CBDR is useful tool to guide future global negotiations on climate change – but only if this has some legality in it – then it can be effective. There are already diverse opinions on principle – that the idea that some countries are more responsible than others and should bear the costs misses the point of the realisation that climate change is indeed a collective global problem that can only be combated if all countries puts in all efforts to resolving the crisis – and stopping the blame game. In my opinion if these two points i.e. legality of the CBDR and the current concerns of the principle are ironed out and a clear consensus is met – CBDR still has a good place in future climate change negotiations and the post-Kyoto Protocol.


Comment by Kimbowa Richard on October 26, 2011 at 7:12

Principle 7 of the Rio Declaration provides the first formulation of the CBDR. It is a major feature of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), where it is referred to in the preamble, in the set of principles and throughout Article 4. The UNFCCC distinguishes between three categories of states as follows:

- The developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the effects of adverse effects thereof (Article 3(1). They shall provide new and additional financial resources to meet the agreed full costs incurred by developing country Parties in complying with their obligations (Article 4(3)). They shall also assist the developing country Parties that are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change in meeting costs of adaptation to these adverse effects (Article 4 (4)).

- They shall facilitate the transfer of environmentally sound technology and know-how to developing countries (Article 4(5)). They also shall transmit information on the measures of implementation they have taken within a determined period

- European countries which formerly had communist regimes are considered undergoing the process of transition and are granted some flexibility to enhance their ability to address climate change (Article 4(6)).

- Developing countries should receive financial assistance and benefit from transfer of technology. They shall dispose of more time for making their initial communication on the measures they have taken to implement the convention. Parties that are the least developed may make their communications at their discretion.


The major part of the Kyoto Protocol concerns the targets for the reduction of greenhouse gases (listed in its Annex A) to be achieved within a specified period of time.Generally, the Protocol confirms the general obligations in the UNFCCC, adding that Annex 1 countries as a group must reduce their emissions of the specified greenhouse gases by 5% between 2008 and 2012. The year of reference is 1990 (Gundling L, 2005). Annex B of the Protocol is where obligations between Annex 1 countries and the specific reduction targets for countries or groups of countries is provided and differentiated.


Additionally, the UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol establish general obligations of cooperation towards technology transfer, and provide for financial assistance for mitigation and adaptation to developing countries through the Global Environmental Facility (GEF). The GEF operates two funds under the UNFCCC, the Special Climate Change Fund and the Least Developed Countries Fund; it also operates the Kyoto Protocol Adaptation Fund. These are all mechanisms aimed at operationalizing the CBDR (Vito De Lucia and R. Reibstein, 2007).

The CBDR has two matrices (Vito De Lucia and R. Reibstein, 2007). The first is the common responsibility, which reflects the duty of States of equally sharing the burden of environmental protection for common resources. The secondpart is the differentiated responsibility, which addresses unequal material, social and economic situations across States; different historical contributions to environmental problems; and financial, technological and structural capacity to tackle these problems.

The implication is that common responsibility is a moral and political than a legal concept (violation of law). While states would not be condemned by any international jurisdiction for not taking part in such ‘common efforts’, it would do so if a state causes damage to its neighbour (Kiss, 2005). Hence, for the Post Kyoto – Protocol, unless the concept is ‘unpacked’ (to clarify what is legal and hence hold Parties liable for non-compliance), the status quo will deliver limited progress to technology transfer and replenishment of the adaptation funds.

Comment by Mihad Mohamed on October 25, 2011 at 6:23

Common But Differentiated Responsibility (CBDR)

As described by Lucia (2007), Common But Differentiated Responsibility (CBDR) principal has two matrices. The first is the shared responsibility for shared resources. In fighting climate change, there are common responsibilities all States should accept due to the common resource which is the environment we share.  The second is the differentiated responsibility because of the variations in the economic, social and technological levels of States. Under this notion, because developed nations have a higher capability they should lead the fight against climate change. Also, because the developed nations gained their current capability by “past economic exploitation of global commons” (Lucia, 2007), they should shoulder greater responsibilities.

“Fairness to all parties of the UNFCCC/Kyoto Protocol is addressed via the concept of historical responsibility” which is based on CBDR (McManus, 2009). To be fair, the Kyoto Protocol had to enforce differentiated obligatory commitments on the developed nations based on their historical development activities. Hence,  Article 3 (1) of the Kyoto Protocol, states that the Annex 1 (developed countries) should reduce their overall emissions of Green House Gases (GHG) by at least 5 per cent below 1990 levels in the commitment period 2008 to 2012 (UNFCCC). The developing countries are under no such obligations.  The 5% reduction is a differentiated responsibility of all developed nations compared with developing nations.

The 5% reduction is the common responsibility of all developed nations. But, based on their capability, individual developed nations have different commitments. Differentiated responsibilities based on capability.  This concept is incorporated in to Kyoto mechanisms; emissions trading, clean development mechanism (CDM) and joint implementation. All three mechanisms allow developed nations to take on responsibilities based on their capabilities higher than developed nations.

Another area where Kyoto Protocol employs CBDR is in providing financial assistance to developing countries. Kyoto Protocol establishes differentiated “general obligations” on developed countries to assist developed countries in mitigation and adaptation through Global Environmental Facility (GEF) and Adaptation Fund (Lucia, 2007). With the financial capacity of developing nations, their responsibility towards other social and economical development is greater than climate change adaptation and mitigation.

I believe CBDR is a necessary tool in all global negotiation, especially global climate change negotiations. The common resources and concerns of climate change are greater than any other international affair.  The necessity for differentiated responsibility is also more distinct in the climate change issue.  The historical responsibility and differentiated responsibilities based on differences in economic and technological capacity is much more imperative in the fight against climate change.

I think the reason why Kyoto Protocol is not as effective as it should be is because of the way the parties of the protocol are divided and because it focuses only on the emission levels of those countries. By measuring commitments only based on emission levels the issue of climate change is undermined and division of countries based on just development is not in accordance to the CBDR principal. A developed country like Switzerland might not have to take much action to meet their KP commitment since it’s not a big emitter to begin with. But, they have the financial capacity that developing nations do not. So, they should have differentiated financial commitments, not emission commitments.  Similarly, China might not have the same financial capacity as Switzerland or the historical obligations as Russia, but it does have affordable technology which can be provided to other developing nations. So, it should have technologi

Comment by Dago Tshering on October 24, 2011 at 15:43
Common But Differentiated Responsibility: Dago Tshering, Bhutan

The concept of Common But Differentiated Responsibility (CBDR) is set out in Article 3.1. of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Convention. This concept specifies the need of protecting the global climate system for both the present as well as for future generations and stresses on the importance of enforcing it on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities calling upon basically the developed countries to take the lead in combating climate change and its effects. CBDR therefore is a mixture of different concepts, including ‘common concern’ and acting for the benefit of present and future generations on the basis of equity. In essence it refers to the fact that certain problems affect and are affected by all nations in common, if not to the same degree, and thereby the resulting responsibilities must be differentiated because not all nations have the capacity to contribute equally to alleviate the problem.

As an approach to fulfill the CBDR, various mechanisms are put in place under the Kyoto Protocol namely, Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), Emission Trading and Joint implementation (JI).

The CDM mechanism is explicitly covered under Article 12 of the Kyoto Protocol. This instrument allows countries not bounded by Annex I categorization to reap the benefit of achieving their sustainable development through certified emission reduction project activities which are supported by Annex I countries. This allows Annex I countries to attain their quantified emission reduction accrued from financing the emission reduction projects in Non Annex I countries.

Article 17 of the protocol sets out the emissions trading mechanism allowing countries that have emission units to spare (permissible emission quota but not "used") to sell this excess capacity to countries that exceeds their targets. This option of emission reductions or removals commonly termed as carbon trading has created a carbon market which is operated on a set of principles, modalities, rules and regulation particularly in terms of verification, reporting and accountability for emission trading.

Joint implementation under Article 6 of the protocol offers Parties a flexible and cost-efficient means of fulfilling some part of their commitments, while the host country/party benefits from the foreign investment and technology transfer. This mechanism allows a country with an emission reduction or limitation commitment to earn emission reduction units (ERUs) from an Annex B country/party with the capacity to remove one tonne of CO2.

Therefore the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR) as an increasingly recognized international law upholds the explicit mechanisms to combat the ever increasing global climate emission level to a more manageable level. This concept as of today has the best option to reach the future global consensus on climate negotiation.

To keep up with the aspirations of many more developing countries to pursue their economic development rights and the urgency of peaking emission on part of the developed countries, the application of the CBDR concept should be bought out of the climate negotiation as a consensus document as soon as possible. This arrangement once agreed should be fully implemented in future global climate change combating effort in a fair and effective manner built on the principle of equity and at the same time in maintaining the responsibilities which specifies that the special needs and circumstances of developing country Parties and the requirement of commitments and compliance of the developed countries.

“Nations must commit to swift, deep and equitably shared reductions and the time starts now”.
Comment by Surveyor Efik on October 24, 2011 at 14:44

Assignment 5 of the Climate Change Diplomacy Course 1108 - Group B

By Surveyor Efik,


The global environmental challenges, such as climate change and its attendant consequences, truly constitute the common concern, interest and obligation of all global citizens, Nation-States’ Governments and all stakeholders but the respective capabilities, geographical circumstances, historic responsibilities or contribution to the challenge(s) and historic vulnerabilities of Nation-States, actually differ. Thus, the approach or regulatory framework for tackling the challenges requires the consideration of differentiated responsibilities and capabilities of Nation-States with a view to accommodating the principle of equity, justice and human rights. This defines the context in which the concept of common (obligation) but differentiated responsibility and respective capabilities (CBDR) came into existent in most of the multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs). For example, one of the most conspicuous aspects of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (known as “The Rio Declaration”) was the international community's endorsement of differentiated responsibilities between developed and developing States as a means of achieving both global environmental protection and sustainable development1. Therefore, the concept of CBDR may actually be regarded as a tool founded on the principle of equity and justice and may be described as “a round peg in a round hole” for sharing roles and responsibilities to balance the peculiar circumstances of historical, geographical and economic consideration, along the global divides of developed and the developing countries. According to Professor Louis Sohn, in his The Role of Equity in the Jurisprudence of the International Court of Justice, “equity is here (in CBDR) nothing other than the taking into account of a complex of historical and geographical circumstances, the consideration of which does not diminish justice but, on the contrary, enriches it”2.


In the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), herewith referred to as “The Convention”, its Article 3, boldly captured the concept of CBDR, stating that “Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of future and present generations of human kind on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibility and respective capabilities. Accordingly, developed countries should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof”3. Although, critics have observed that ‘the word “principle” is notably absent from the text of Article 3, as the US, with support from other industrial nations, opposed the inclusion of the principle in the formation of the UNFCCC as it added uncertainty to treaty obligations,2, 4. In his analysis, McManus clarified that “while not a legal obligation itself, the ideal of common but differentiated responsibility has provided the legal and philosophical basis for the existing legal obligations including the instruments designed to achieve the objectives of the Kyoto Protocol”.


In the legally binding instrument, known as the Kyoto Protocol, (herewith referred to as “The Protocol”), which serves as the enforcement pact to the Convention also based its implementation on the same principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities (CBDR) as captured in Article 10.1 of The Protocol. “All Parties, taking into account their common but differentiated responsibilities and their specific national and regional development priorities, objectives and circumstances, without introducing any new commitments for Parties not included in A

Comment by Mihad Mohamed on October 17, 2011 at 13:51

I think CBDR is an important concept in the climate change negotiations. It is an established and fair idea that we all have responsibilities for climate change but to differing  degrees. I believe this concept should be explored further for the post-Kyoto Protocol (if any). For an example, this could be applied more deeply to how the states are divided in to groups. Division of states into two main groups (developed and developing) in KP doesn't seem to be based on the CBDR concept.

CBDR establishes that different states have different capabilities to differing degrees. So shouldn't there be more groups? Some states are more financially advanced while not as advanced in the technological arena. So some countries could be in the technological group and not in the financial group. For an example, China has affordable technology but maybe not the financial capacity to fund climate change projects.  So, they can be in the technological group and not in the financial group. Then to make this work, instead of getting a commitment on just emissions different groups could commit to different things.

But, we will need some countries to make a commitment on emissions. How can we formulate that group based on something other than just developed and developing?

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