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Editor's Note: Underlying Debates 

Issue #189 | 22 May 2012

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By: Lynn Wagner, Ph.D., Group Director, SDG Knowledge, IISD <>

Last week, delegates at the Bonn Climate Change Conference participated in an in-session workshop on equitable access to sustainable development. The debating points were familiar, yet their persistence highlights the importance of this underlying issue in the development of international agreements.

On Wednesday, 16 May, parties were invited to consider three aspects of equity in relation to the global goal for emission reductions: country circumstances; historical and future contributions to overall emissions; and capacity to address climate change. Following a number of presentations, delegates presented their views, including: an emphasis that equity is a key principle to solving the climate change crisis by linking rights and obligations; a call for further defining equitable access to sustainable development in the context of a shared vision and broader negotiations; an emphasis by some countries that historical responsibility lends itself to a quantifiable translation; and the importance of understanding the operational aspects of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change's principles. Other speakers highlighted that: equity could exist in differentiated forms of mitigation, adaptation and support; equitable access to sustainable development should focus on development opportunities; there is a need to decouple emissions from development; and participation in mitigation efforts should be undertaken according to each country's differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.

Next week, similar themes are likely to underlie the debates in the next round of informal informal consultations on the outcome document for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD, or Rio+20). Amidst the approximately 400 unresolved paragraphs, delegates will continue to discuss proposed references to the Rio principles on common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR) and on access to information and public participation, equal participation of countries in decision making, official development assistance (ODA) targets, and implementation of previous commitments, among others.

Although many observers regret that the process to negotiate text related to such issues takes an extraordinarily long time, the implied relationships among countries and actors at all levels are at the core of many international relations debates, and consensus on them is evolving slowly. Each in-session workshop and negotiation round offers an opportunity for countries to review these issues and to focus in more clearly on the “red lines” or critical boundaries to the debate. But until the underlying positions have evolved, the negotiations may continue to dance around the edges of the topics rather than reach a full resolution on the issue. The challenge for the negotiators in this case could be to structure an outcome within the zone of agreement that will continue to stretch the parameters of the underlying debate. The challenge for our Earth Negotiations Bulletin coverage of the negotiations is to help our readers identify the parameters of these underlying debates; and for our knowledgebases, to track the direction that these key debates take outside the negotiating rooms as well as the international forces that help to shape them.