The concept that the countries that have contributed the most greenhouse gasses historically should have to do more on climate action is a simple one, but one that has been highly debated over decades. This is because of the high expectations around climate action and finance commitments for these historical emitters from countries that contributed the least to climate change, but are most vulnerable. These large historical emitters consider what they are being called upon to do to be too much or not politically viable, and are also affected by their global positionality in a given political moment. An example of this positionality in a political moment would be the US worrying about China’s current emissions as they are currently the world’s largest emitter at this point of time, as opposed to addressing its own historical emissions due to the “competition” between the countries. This is not to say that current emission production should not be considered or addressed, however, it is important to understand that some nations such as the United States have contributed more to the climate crisis than any other. Therefore, they should be responsible to take on their portion of fighting climate change, and assisting other countries in managing climate impacts.

In March, 2023 the IPCC released the Sixth Assessment Report, and in section two of the report, the IPCC highlighted both cumulative and per capita net greenhouse gas emissions, which are significantly higher in North America primarily because of the United States. One would assume that if a country caused about 20% of the problem they would provide 20% of the global resources to address the problem, they would do their Fair Share. However, that has not been the case

So why does that matter for COP28, and why is it such a big deal?

The 28th Conference of the Parties (COP28), which will take place November 30-December 12, 2023 in Dubai has two incredibly important topics that will be central to the success of this COP. First, countries will have to assess their progress since the signing of the Paris Agreement for the first time, and determine what needs to happen next in order to stay below the 1.5℃ global temperature limit through a process called the Global Stocktake. Secondly, countries are determining who should finance the newly approved Loss and Damage Fund, which supports countries to manage losses and damages that occur as a result of climate change impacts that cannot be adapted to. Both of these conversations are hinged on the idea of historical responsibility and what countries like the United States are morally responsible to do in response to a problem that they are the largest single contributor to historically. 

On September 8, 2023, the co-facilitators of the Technical Dialogue of the First Global Stocktake released their Synthesis Report ahead of the Global Stocktake Workshop in Abu Dhabi October 12-14, 2023. In this report, the co-chairs noted that there is a significant emissions gap of 20.3-23.9 Gt CO2  eq2, and that action is needed to increase Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) for 2030 to address this gap. The report also mentions that the “NDCs will represent its highest possible ambition, reflecting its common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR) and respective capabilities in the light of different national circumstances,” and that “trends in historical and ongoing GHG emissions provide important information to understand the current situation, how it came to be, and how it can inform future action.” However, it does not clearly articulate that those most responsible for historic emissions will be expected to develop an NDC that is reflective of that. Several parties have called for more discussion to consider historical responsibility in the Global Stocktake to close the emissions gap, and have responsible nations do more. This will be a politically divisive and important conversation for the Global Stocktake, as countries like the United States, which serves as one of the co-chairs, will want to continue to use CBDR and equity language without actually talking about their responsibility to take on historical emissions. 

Last year during COP27 in Egypt, in the last hour of the COP, countries struck a deal to develop a Loss and Damage Fund. This year a Transitional Committee has been meeting to discuss where the fund should be housed, the rules of the fund, and who should contribute. There are two critical components countries are not able to agree on at the moment. The first being that developed nations would like the fund to be housed under the World Bank, which developing nations are concerned about due to the fact that the bank has been an exploitative institution and not an entity known to work on climate until recently. Secondly, developed nations led by the United States, have consistently stated that those who should contribute to the fund are countries that are willing and able to do so. Because those most vulnerable to climate change contributed the least amount of emissions, they are demanding developed nations recognize their historical responsibility and contribute to the fund in order to address their losses and damages. The lack of willingness to take accountability has left the negotiations at an impasse and conversations have broken down resulting in an emergency meeting of the Transitional Committee to try to work out these issues before COP. 

What would fully acknowledging historical responsibility look like, and what impact could it have?
If the United States recognized its historical responsibility, and did its Fair Share to address the climate crisis in the negotiations, it would shift the global conversation, and put the world on track to stay below 1.5°C. A shift like this could mean that historic responsibility should be considered in each country’s NDCs when they are developed in 2030. It could mean shifting what is being done today to exceed the world’s expectations when it comes to the United States, decreasing its own emissions, and helping other countries reduce theirs as well. It also would give developing nations hope that those responsible for the climate crisis are going to do as much as they can to prevent further damage while responding to the impacts that are already occurring, such as contributing to the Loss and Damage Fund. This is the moment the world has been waiting for. It is time for the US to come to the table and become the climate leader that we all want this country to be by recognizing its impact and holding itself accountable to address the problem in any way the country can.