Climate Responsibility: Principles and Frameworks

by Virginia Raffaeli 

With COP26 having finally taken place in Glasgow (UK), it was time for the international community to take stock of the progress made in tackling the climate crisis since the adoption of the Paris Agreement in 2015. Through the Paris Agreement 196 states party to the UNFCCC pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) to keep global warming below 1.5°C or, at most 2°C. Unfortunately, current reduction targets and relevant implementation policies are regarded by many as insufficient to achieve this goal [1].

Some argue that the reason for this lies in the nature of the Paris Agreement framework itself, which relies on Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) rather than predetermined emission reduction targets [2]. Since then, NDCs have become our primary mechanism to curb climate change. In order to understand why this choice was made, we must examine existing frameworks and principles.

Calculating responsibilities and sharing the burden of climate change

Since its inception, two questions have permeated climate change governance. First, how do we differentiate between countries’ responsibilities while most effectively addressing the climate crisis? Second, what does a scientifically effective, dynamic and quasi-universal emission-reduction mechanism look like [3]? Multiple attempts have been made over the last 30 years to find a solution.

Common but differentiated climate responsibilities under the UNFCCC

The adoption of the UNFCCC in 1992 represented the first answer by the international community to these questions. Importantly, it did so through ‘intentionally ambiguous wording’ and through the absence of any legally binding targets to reduce GHGs and  [3, 4]. The Convention required Annex I parties (forty industrialised countries and economies in transition) to reduce their emissions to 1990 levels by 2000, as well as to provide financial and other forms of support to developing countries for climate action [5].

The UNFCCC’s key principles of equity in accordance with that of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities’ (CBDR-RC) thus acknowledge that all states have a shared obligation to address the climate crisis but that they are not equally responsible [3]. What remained unclear in the Convention, however, was whether developed countries should take the lead because of their historically cumulated responsibilities, their current capabilities, or both [6].

The Kyoto Protocol

In order to address the deficiencies of the UNFCCC and the absence of binding requirements, the parties to the UNFCCC adopted the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, setting a ‘time-bound, quantitative limit on developed countries’ emissions’ [3]. In addition to three new ‘flexibility mechanisms’ for trading and offsetting emissions, the Kyoto Protocol held that during the first commitment period (2008-2012), developed countries were expected to collectively reduce their emissions by an average of 5.2% below 1990 levels [7].

Similar to the UNFCCC itself, the Kyoto Protocol placed the emission-reduction burden on developed (Annex I) countries. This, however, ignored the fact that although they were responsible for three-fourths of historical cumulative emissions, by the early 2000s they only caused 50% of annual emissions, with those of developing countries growing twice as fast [8].

This significant change in the responsibility for new emissions led to the question of whether a new mechanism ought to be devised to impose binding requirements on developing countries [3]. Although many proposals were made concerning the adoption of new criteria to determine emission reduction targets, developing countries argued that placing upon them legally binding quantitative emission targets failed to reflect historical responsibility, went against the so-called ‘Greenhouse Development Right’ (the recognition of a development threshold in burden-sharing), and would decrease the efforts made by developed states [3, 9, 10].

Attempts to resolve this impasse led to the drafting of the highly criticised non-binding and non-emission reduction specific 2009 Copenhagen Accord [3]. It did, however, contain mitigation pledges from both developed and developing countries [3].

Nationally Determined Contributions and the Paris Agreement

Some developing countries put a lot of pressure on drafters to uphold the UNFCCC equity and CBDR principles. Nevertheless, following the increasing support of others for the recognition of the new socio-economic realities, in 2015 a solution was found to this dilemma through the adoption of the Paris Agreement [3, 11]. This preserved the principles of CBDR-RC and equity while recognising that, in light of ‘different national circumstances’, a state’s responsibility as well as its ability to respond to the climate crisis would change [3, 12]. 

Rather than adopt strict hard law obligations, the Paris Agreement is thus based on each state submitting progressively ambitious NDCs to achieve long-term emission-reduction goals and combat global warming [3].

Although this system has been criticised by some as sacrificing effectiveness in the name of universality, at present it is the only global climate change framework that allows for emission reduction targets to evolve over time to reflect changes in the global sphere [3]. What remains to be seen is whether a system can be devised that merges both the flexibility of CBDR-RC and its inclusivity with legally binding minimum targets.


Featured image courtesy of the UNFCCC’s Flickr Account

[1] UNEP, UNEP DTU Partnership (2020). Emissions Gap Report 2020: 25-28. Available at [Accessed 16 October 2021].
[2] Maizland, L. (2021). Global Climate Agreements: Successes and Failures. Council on Foreign Relations Backgrounder. Available at [Accessed 16 October 2021].
[3] Luomi, M. (2020). Global Climate Change Governance: The Search for Effectiveness and Universality. IISD Earth Negotiations Bulletin, 6: 2-3, 5-9. Available at [Accessed 16 October 2021].
[4] Gupta, J. (2014). Setting the Stage: Defining the Climate Problem (Until 1990). The History of Global Climate Governance. Cambridge University Press: 41-28. Available at [Accessed 16 October 2021].
[5] UN General Assembly, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (Jan. 20 1994), A/RES/48/189. Art. 3. Available at: [Accessed 16 October 2021].
[6] Biniaz, S. (2016). Comma but Differentiated Responsibilities: Punctuation and 30 Other Ways Negotiators Have Resolved Issues in the International Climate Change Regime. Michigan Journal of Environmental & Administrative Law, 6:1, 40. Available at [Accessed 16 October 2021].
[7] Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (Dec. 10, 1997). 37 I.L.M. 22 (1998); 2303 U.N.T.S. 148; U.N. Doc FCCC/CP/1997/7/Add.1. Art. 3. Available at [Accessed 16 October 2021].
[8] Baumert, K. et al. (2005). Navigating the Numbers: Greenhouse Gas Data and International Climate Policy. World Resources Institute: 12-17. Available at [Accessed 16 October 2021].
[9] Akanle, T. et al. (2008). Summary of the Fourteenth Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and Fourth Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol: 1-12 December 2008. IISD Earth Negotiations Bulletin:  13. Available at [Accessed 16 October 2021].
[10] Stockholm Environment Institute and the Chinese Economists 50 Forum (2009). Going Clean – The Economics of China’s Low Carbon Development: 11-12. Available at [Accessed 16 October 2021].
[11] Sheriff, G. (2016). Burden Sharing Under the Paris Agreement. NCEE Working Paper Series. Working Paper No. #16-04: 1. Available at;h=repec:nev:wpaper:wp201604 [Accessed 16 October 2021].[12] Paris Agreement to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, (Dec. 12, 2015). U.N. Doc. FCCC/CP/2015/L.9/Rev/1. Art. 2(2). Available at [Accessed 16 October 2021].
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