The adoption of the principle i.e. Common but Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR) in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) entails that while all States are pursuing a common goal, they hold different obligations depending on their socio-economic situation, as well as their present and historical contribution to the environmental problem at stake. The principle provides an overarching harmonisation in terms of sharing the burden and responsibility to safeguard global environmental problems for common resources equally, whilst recognising and acknowledging that there are wide differences with regards to the economic development among the States. Accordingly, these differences between the States act as an indication to determine their respective contributions, as well as their capabilities and abilities in addressing environmental problems.
The principle became prominent in the 1990s especially when States started to share the same sentiment whereby they should develop a legal framework on climate change, in order to address the rapid hike of the greenhouse gases (GHGs) emissions which were not previously included in the ozone layer protection regime during the 1980s. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was soon established by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) to provide scientific assessment and the implications of policies made by the decision makers in terms of adaptation and mitigation.1
Initially, the principle was not unanimously accepted by the developed countries, in particular, the United States where it conditioned its participation of such regulatory regime on the involvement of developing countries as well. It became evident that a “north-south” divide2 was exhibited with regards to the perception of climate change between the developed and developing countries due to their dissimilar and often diverging underlying domestic interests – the former emphasised on the environmental issues by drawing a connection to the scientific findings, whilst the latter shown concerned about their future development and economic status.
In spite of that, the principle of CBDR came into force when the UNFCCC was adopted in 1992. It led to a compromise in relation to the positions of safeguarding global environmental issues between the developed and developing countries with the aim of bringing about the establishment of environmental governance to be as inclusive, and as effective as possible. On account of recognising the States’ present and historical relation between their development, as well as their contribution towards the degradation of global environment, it was established that since the developed countries had entered the industrialisation era sooner and had the opportunity to develop for a longer period, they now need to undertake a more significant share of responsibility. Without neglecting various climate change affected groups, namely small island states, areas which are more susceptible to drought and natural disaster, least developed countries, low-lying coastal region etc., the principle also seeks to take their specific needs and concerns into consideration when it comes to determining their responsibility in addressing environmental problems.
Considering that Malaysia is a part of the Like-Minded Group of Developing Countries (LMDCs), this principle allows them to hold a less stringent obligation. In addition to that, developed countries are required to provide international assistance to the developing countries i.e. transfer of technology and financial resources etc. in helping them to achieve their sustainable development responsibility, whilst playing the lead role in combating climate change in accordance with Article 3(1) of the UNFCCC.3
Written by: Choy Moon Moon
- IPCC, ‘History’ https://www.ipcc.ch/organization/organization_history.shtml accessed 17 July 2016
- D A Mejía, The Evolution of the Climate Change Regime: Beyond a North-South Divide?  ICIP 18-20
- UNFCCC 1992, NY