Who Should Foot the Bill?: The Role of Developed Countries in Meeting the Paris Agreement’s Temperature Goals

By Student Delegate Cynthia Kane

Climate change is the behemoth problem of our times; it is often referred to as “super wicked” due to its complexity, long-term effects, and uncertain trajectory.[1] Nowhere is this complexity more apparent than in the Paris Agreement (“Agreement”), ratified by 194 countries and covering approximately 95% of global greenhouse gas emissions. One key aspect of the Agreement is its ambitious and historic temperature goals outlined in Article 2, Section 1: “[H]olding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above preindustrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels.” However, while the participating countries agreed on the temperature goals, significant disagreement still exists about the best way to achieve them. A key—and controversial—question that has emerged from this discussion is: what role, if any, should developed countries play in funding developing countries’ climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts? The answer to this question largely depends on which country you ask and the lens through which the country views climate change (i.e., as an economic or moral issue).[2]

The United States (“U.S.”) views climate change as an economic issue,[3] and made it clear that it would assist developing countries because it has the financial capacity to do so—not out of a moral obligation. Indeed, during COP15, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged that the developed world would “mobilize $100 billion annually” starting in 2020 to aid developing countries’ adaptation and mitigation efforts. Nevertheless, while amenable to providing financial support to the most vulnerable developing countries, the U.S. was wary of the political fallout that such provisions in the Agreement would create. Consequently, at COP21, when the Agreement was finalized, the U.S. was adamant that the language relating to payments to developing countries explicitly stated such payments were not an indication of legal liability. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry explained: “We’re not against [loss and damage]. We’re in favor of framing it in a way that doesn’t create a legal remedy because Congress will never buy into an agreement that has something like that . …The impact of it would be to kill the deal.” Thus, the U.S. views language mandating payments to developing countries or assigning legal liability to such payments as unacceptable.

In contrast to the U.S.’s economic view, many developing countries consider climate change to be a social justice and equity issue. These developing countries believe that because developed countries have disproportionately contributed to climate change, they have a moral obligation to assist developing countries with their mitigation efforts.[4] This is the viewpoint of the COP negotiating bloc known as the Like Minded Developing Countries (“LMDC”), which includes 25 countries and represents over 50% of the world’s population. This bloc seeks to keep the Agreement’s differentiated obligations between developing and developed countries and has been vocal in its push for financial assistance in order to ensure equity for developing countries. In other words, the bloc believes that developed countries should be obligated to provide financial assistance for mitigation, while developing countries should have the option to do so if their socioeconomic capabilities allow them to.

In preparation for COP27, the bloc submitted a proposal to revise the definition of “climate finance” within the Agreement. The proposal reiterates developed countries’ obligations to provide funding to developing countries. It further asserts that the lack of an agreed-upon definition of “climate finance” has caused inconsistent and ineffective reporting of both developed countries’ contributions and developing countries’ receipt of contributions and continuing financial needs. Using available reporting data from 2013 to 2018, a 2021 United Nations report confirms the bloc’s assertion: the report found that the rate of contribution, while increasing annually, was “not sufficient to reach the $100 billion [goal] in 2020.”

The LMDC’s proposal will be considered during negotiations in November. However, the larger question of developed countries’ obligations to developing countries will likely remain a hotly debated issue well beyond COP27—only time will tell which viewpoint will prevail.


[1]  DANIEL BODANSKY ET AL., INTERNATIONAL CLIMATE CHANGE LAW 2 (Oxford University Press ed., 1st ed. 2007).

[2]  Id. at 4.

[3]  Id. at 6 – 7.

[4]  Id. at 7 – 8.

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