A victory on this issue would be the central focus for India as the talks enter the ministerial round in the second week of the climate change summit.
The principle is enshrined in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), agreed to by all countries in 1992. It requires that polluters pay for the damage they cause. In this case, it asks countries with greater accumulated emissions of greenhouse gases over time be made to do much more and help others get onto a cleaner road to growth.
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As the predominant greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, remains embedded in the atmosphere for centuries, countries responsible for higher stocking has what is known in climate talks jargon as a historical responsibility.
The convention has a list of countries, called Annex I to the convention, with historical responsibility. The other countries, including India, were called non-Annex I.
The US and most developed countries want no reference to the Annex I in the Paris pact. They say some poor countries have become emerging economies and all countries should be brought on a par. India and some developing countries believe doing away with the annexes will remove historical responsibility, while emissions stocked by the developed countries have not changed with time.
The developed nations, however, agree the Paris agreement would be decided under the UNFCCC. The convention would be like a constitution of a country, and the Paris agreement would implement its objectives like a law. One of that principles is that of common but differentiated responsibilities.
Developed countries often refer to the fact that current and future emissions are bound to increase from emerging economies such as India and that must be prevented under the Paris agreement.
Since the convention was signed, the stocks of emissions from developed countries have risen. Developing countries are getting on to that path. “If only the current and future flow of emissions is tackled and historical emissions forgotten, then the burden of fighting climate change for historical emissions too gets transferred to our shoulders,” explained a negotiator.
But the US has held it will not permit the reference to the Annex I and non-Annex countries in the Paris agreement. Some countries have suggested referring to the differentiation (and consequently the historical responsibility) by using terms such as developed and developing countries.
While in common parlance the words are used often while reporting on climate negotiations and the differentiation built into the convention’s architecture, the phrases actually have no clear agreed definition in UN forums.
Bringing these terminologies into the Paris agreement would require these to be defined by consensus of all 196 countries. It could become a chicken-and-egg situation, because again the US is firm it will not permit any reference to historical emissions. If the terms are not defined, then annexure-based differentiation could continue by default.
The idea of a carbon budget — with global responsibility being divided based on how much carbon stock each country should ideally be permitted to stream — also fails in the face of the US red lines.
The temperature-limit goal generates the total carbon stock that the planet can take. The parameters for carbon budget would have to be decided by consensus between 196 countries. Each country would want to define it on the basis of where its own carbon emissions, demographics and economies stand and how these are projected to grow. A consensus would remain elusive.
To break the logjam India, proposes that differentiation be kept alive by creating distinctly different nature of responsibilities in each of the elements of the Paris agreement, whether it is reducing emissions, providing climate finance or enabling clean technological devolution. This is often referred to as operationalisation of the principle of differentiation.
So far, it’s been strongly supported in this demand by many developing countries. Countries with tiny economies having clarity that their emissions would never be significant see no reason to argue for differentiation. This lot includes several least developed countries and small island countries.
The next one week will see India and others facing a challenge in this space. A question that has been asked often of India at the Paris summit is will it block the negotiations? One could turn it around and ask, would India be willing to stand with a few, or even no partner-countries, to defend its carbon and development rights.
The Indian delegation at Paris led by Javadekar would hope an answer to that question, regardless of how it is asked, is not needed by Friday when the French hope to seal the Paris agreement.