In 1988, the UN General Assembly’s resolution affirmed that “the responsibility for containing, reducing and eliminating global environmental damage…must be in relation to the damage caused, and must be in accordance with (the country’s) respective capabilities and responsibilities”.

Who are the free riders?

Any plan proposed to solve the problem of burden sharing in reducing greenhouse gas emissions should take into account two things - fairness and the free rider problem. Every nation should contribute to reducing emissions. But how much is fair for each country? Responsibility in relation to damage caused & responsibility in accordance with respective capabilities is the principle agreed upon in the 1988 UN General Assembly’s resolution.

Developed countries have always used their negotiating powers in shifting responsibility to developing countries. Developing countries have insisted that responsibility should be in accordance with the damage caused.

The change of wording in the Rio agreement (1992) from ‘primary responsibility’ of industrialized nations to ‘common but differentiated responsibility and respective capabilities’ captures both fairness and the free-rider problem.

In practice though, if one considers the top two emitters today: - China & US:

China has been a classic example of the free-rider problem that industrialised nations were afraid of. China does not wish to sacrifice its economic growth and global competitiveness and continues to expand its coal plants and capacities. Even though historically, China is only the fourth largest cumulative emitter, it has been the top emitter in the world since 2005. In 15 years, China has grown to more than twice the US’s global emissions. But even China doesn’t appear to be as big a problem as the developed nations if one factors its per capita emissions. After all, fairness has to be about equal access to the climate commons.

The US has been the worst offender in this regard, even though they are one of the countries ostensibly concerned about the free rider problem. The US has contributed the highest (25%) to historic cumulative emissions and yet takes up an outsized proportion of the lifetime carbon budget (quote below). Their annual emissions have only flatlined when they should be decreasing like the EU. The US has always taken vague, unproductive stances and delivered little in terms of climate action including the Trump administration pulling out of the Paris Agreement and Biden just getting back into it.

Someone born today in the US would be allocated a lifetime carbon budget some one-sixth to one-third as much as a person born in the US before 1946. But that recently born American would still be allocated a lifetime carbon budget some 15 times larger than someone born in India, four times larger than someone born in China and around twice as large as in Europe (Centre for Science and Environment, India)

There has been a lack of willingness from some of the industrialized nations to take leadership in this regard and to offer crucial technological and financial assistance to less developed nations who have barely had three decades of development to get their populations out of poverty. This has to be mandated through the UN framework and the wordings of the 1988 resolution are especially important today to serve as a guideline to return to whenever disputes arise to rectify the hypocrisies of any nation.

As we go into COP 26, Climate Action Tracker rates the following major emitters based on their INDCs:

Critically insufficient: US, Russia

Highly insufficient: China, South Africa

Insufficient: EU, Latin America, Canada

India is rated as 2 degree celsius compatible, but even 2 degree celsius warming will be too much for the planet.