What is the Common But Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities (CBDR-RC) Principle?

by Malek Romdhane

The principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities (CBDR-RC) outlined in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), recognises that countries (known as Parties) have different duties and abilities to address the negative impacts of climate change, but all countries have an obligation to address climate change [1].

At the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, the CBDR-RC was officially enshrined in the UNFCCC treaty on Climate Change. Article 3 paragraph 1 of the UNFCCC states: “The Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. Accordingly, the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof” [2,3]. The CBDR-RC principle also applies to certain areas such as adaptation, technology transfer, finance, and capacity building; thus by applying the CBDR-RC principle Parties can meet their UNFCCC obligations [4].

The start of the CBDR-RC principle 

In 1992, the UNFCCC divided countries into two groups based on the country’s level of development; Annex I Parties and Non-Annex I countries. Annex I countries were defined as the developed countries (members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)) in 1992 and countries undergoing the transition to a market economy (the EIT Parties), while the non Annex I countries comprised the least developed countries [5]. 

Over time, this differentiation of countries created tension between the rich and emerging countries. This tension led to the failure of UN climate deals such as the Copenhagen Accord in 2009 [6].  Furthermore, the developing countries refused to accept quantified emission mitigation reduction targets set by the UNFCCC. This was thought to be because the developing countries blamed the developed countries for their history of high emissions, rather than considering their own emissions too. Developed countries insisted that developing countries must take mitigation efforts and reduce their emissions as well. Also, the definition of developed and developing countries was not clear for them; the developed countries claimed that the state of the countries in 1992 was not consistent with the situation in the 2000s [7]. A German negotiator once said in november 2015, “If we keep up the separation of the 1992 convention, this would mean that Greece has to support Qatar” [8].

In addition to the definition of the country type groups, the UNFCCC also states that the Parties must consider the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR) and respective capabilities (RC) to protect the global climate system [9]. The CBDR-RC principles were also criticised by some Parties (often Annex I countries) who stated that the CBDR-RC principles were static and instead should take into account the current and future economic realities. The Parties further stated that the Annex classification did not reflect “the changing nature of circumstances, responsibilities and capabilities” [10]. 

During COP17 the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP) was established. The ADP invites all countries to take part in mitigation efforts with differentiation in the quantified economy-wide emission reduction targets or actions according to CBDR-RC and equity. The ADP provided a clear mandate towards adoption of a new global agreement, which took place during the 21st Conference of Parties of the UNFCCC (COP 21) in 2015, in Paris after several years of negotiations.

CBDR-RC and the Paris Agreement

By adopting the Paris Agreement, the terminology of Annex I countries and Non Annex I countries was changed to developed and developing countries [9]. Through paragraph 4 of the Article 4 of the Paris Agreement developed countries are expected to take the lead in mitigation and finance. This paragraph states that “Developed country Parties should continue taking the lead by undertaking economy-wide absolute emission reduction targets…” [12]. Additionally, through the agreement the developing countries have an international obligation to take mitigation efforts, stated by Article 4 of the agreement: Developing country Parties should continue enhancing their mitigation efforts”. 

Article 2 of the Paris Agreement also states: “This Agreement will be implemented to reflect equity and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances” [11,12]. This paragraph highlights one of the main aims of the Paris agreement: to involve all Parties (developed and developing countries) in the mitigation commitments. The nuance between the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement (“in the light of different national circumstances”) also emphasises the different country’s levels of responsibilities for greenhouse gas emission (GHG) reductions and capabilities to act and adapt to climate change according to their national country context. It could therefore be argued that the Paris Agreement has struck a careful balance between the need for ambitious climate action and the need for fair effort sharing amongst Parties [13]. This enables governments to act with due diligence; to consider the risks associated with any action while taking appropriate climate measures to the best of it’s abilities [13]. 


Featured image courtesy of the UNFCCC Flickr Page
[1] Common But Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capability (CBDR-RC) 2019, URL: https://www.civilsdaily.com/news/common-but-differentiated-responsibilities-and-respective-capability-cbdr-rc/ [last accessed 18/06/21] 
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[5] UNFCCC, Parties & Observers, URL: https://unfccc.int/parties-observers [last accessed 18/06/21] 
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[7] Developing CBDR-RC indices for fair allocation of emission reduction responsibilities and capabilities across countries, 2018, URL: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/23311843.2017.1420365 [last accessed 18/06/21] 
[8] Sophie Yeo and Simon Evans, Explainer: Why ‘differentiation’ is key to unlocking Paris climate deal, 2015, URL: https://www.carbonbrief.org/explainer-why-differentiation-is-key-to-unlocking-paris-climate-deal [last accessed 18/06/21] 
[9] Izzet Ari and Ramazan Sari, Developing CBDR-RC indices for fair allocation of emission reduction responsibilities and capabilities across countries, 2017, URL: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/23311843.2017.1420365 [last accessed 18/06/21] 
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[13] Voigt, C., & Ferreira, F. (2016). ‘Dynamic Differentiation’: The Principles of CBDR-RC, Progression and Highest Possible Ambition in the Paris Agreement. Transnational Environmental Law,5(2), 285-303. doi:10.1017/S2047102516000212

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