Posted by: islandsfirst | June 19, 2008

Common Responsibility

Redressing the international political inequality faced by small island nations is an Islands First priority, particularly when it comes to climate change. Those most culpable are also the most powerful, in whose self-interest the assignation of responsibility has come to a standstill. Pleas to protect small island nations – who represent one in five member states, but whose resources are a fraction of those deployed by the largest five – are inaudible above the accusatory din.

Central to the finger-pointing is the principle of common but differentiated responsibility. Suffice to say, the emphasis is not on “responsibility”. But big boys playing the blame game is a recipe for the political stalemate that unfortunately characterizes much of international negotiations. Their selfishness is our greatest challenge.

At a recent follow-up meeting to the General Assembly’s thematic debate on climate change, private sector representatives urged national governments to provide an operable framework in which the enormous potential of the global economy could be unleashed in weaning us from carbon. In the ensuing discussion, a representative of India took the opportunity to ask panelists from the private sector about how they integrate the principle of common but differentiated responsibility in their private investments. The response by Climate Change Capital vice-chairman James Cameron made no bones about what’s really at stake:

Because I’ve been in these negotiations for many, many years before, I understand very well your question. But I reject the premise. I couldn’t have started a business called Climate Change Capital without the awareness of the Framework Convention on Climate Change, which I helped negotiate on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States. The Clean Development Mechanism is a device designed to incorporate both the precautionary principle and the principle of common but differentiated responsibility. It’s a means by which the differentiated obligations are implemented through the transfer of investment into the developing world, and it’s working that way now. It just can’t overcome all of the barriers to investment in a country like Tanzania or in some other parts of the African continent where we’ve been trying to make investments just as hard as we’ve been trying to make them in China. But we’ve made far, far more investments in China.

Now I’m going to make a harsh point here just to communicate to you that I do know exactly what you’re on about. Many, many years of representing the interests of the small island states. The priority for them is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible. They have no power to do anything about it themselves. It doesn’t really matter – in that context – whether money from the CDM goes into building cleaner energy plants on the islands. That would be a good thing, but it’s more important that the problem get solved. So if the money goes into a country in the developing world to reduce tons of carbon tomorrow, that’s their paramount interest. And the CDM can’t, on its own, carry all the other interests that developing countries have to receive investment.

So, at least speaking for my business, my business is fully aware of the principle of common but differentiated responsibility, has entrusted a great deal of faith in the policy-making process in this room, but won’t depend utterly upon it. So we will look for all sorts of other policy signals. We’ll look for pure market signals from the price of oil. We’ll look for all sorts of incentives that come from change of consumption patterns in those countries that are experiencing real costs associated with both public policy focused on climate change and higher energy prices. So I would like to see that in everything that we do, including what we argue for in the public policy realm. We see long-term value in investing in the ways in which you understand common but differentiated responsibility. So the best policy instruments will pick up that theme, but we won’t depend upon it. We look for other ways. We look for other incentives to produce returns to our institutional investors that are not dependent upon the policy signal that you describe.

A video archive of the debate can be found here. A call to action here.


  1. Unadulterated words, some truthful words man. Made my day!

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