Brazil has proposed that the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) formally study the historical responsibility of countries for the accumulated greenhouse gas emissions on the basis of which the future emission reduction targets can be set. The proposal, which has found the backing of other BASIC countries – India, China and South Africa – will be formally discussed at the Warsaw talks beginning November 11.

Developed countries, especially the United States, have till date refused to acknowledge the importance of accounting for the emissions accumulated in the atmosphere so far which are also referred to as ‘stocks.’ It prefers to negotiate only looking at current and future emission flows. The U.S. is the highest emitter of accumulated emissions so far and China, India and other emerging economies fall far behind the developed world. The principle of historical emissions is based on the scientific fact that carbon dioxide emissions – by far the largest greenhouse gas – once emitted, stay in the atmosphere for more than a 100 years and continue to heat up the planet.

Brazil has now asked that IPCC — a pool of more than 2000 scientists working to compile the best of science on the issue — be also charged with developing a “methodology to enable Parties [countries] to quantify national historical contributions to climate change. Such reference methodology on historical responsibilities should guide domestic consultation process for defining mitigation contributions during the post-2020 period.”

Not new

The principle of historical emissions itself is not new. The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate acknowledges its importance. The calculations of such emissions also exist widely in the public domain. But to get a formally recognised formulation for historical emissions from the U.N., IPCC holds great political and strategic value in the negotiations.

If the proposal gets approved at the Warsaw talks, it would ensure that the principle of historical emissions also gets more firmly embedded in the negotiations for the new climate pact to be signed by 2015 and becomes one of the parameters based on which countries are held responsible for doing less than the required levels to combat climate change. This would put a greater onus of action on the developed world than emerging economies. Accounting more for the current and future emissions – something the developed world prefers – would put the onus for costly climate reduction actions on emerging countries whose economies are growing and consuming an increasing amount of energy and fuel today.