High Drama In Copenhagen


At the Copenhagen conference, the negotiating bloc of developing countries known as "G77 and China" meets in the Hans Christian Andersen Room of the Bella Centre. It’s an apt name. After just two days, plot twists have emerged from this room that stretch credulity.

The G77 and China bloc actually includes over 130 countries, which vary dramatically in terms of population, geography and level of development. The bloc encompasses members of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), members of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and members of the African Union, as well as the emerging economic powerhouses China, India and Brazil (three members of the "BRIC"). Members share in common their lack of wealth relative to Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) members, if little else.

Size is the G77 and China’s strength, but also its fundamental weakness. Made up as it is of former colonised, exploited and marginalised countries, the bloc has the moral authority to call for interstate justice and the ability to block any unwelcome negotiated consensus. But the breadth of its membership increased the amount of abstraction around what actually unites it in its common positions and can slow it down with endless internal process.

When the interests of its member states are irreconcilable, even the façade of G77 solidarity can break, as it has already done in trade negotiations previously. The rifts that are beginning to emerge in Copenhagen are along several fault lines: whether consensus climate science is accepted; at what level global warming must be contained; and how to respond to the controversial Danish draft text which has so shaken deliberations here.

First, the question of climate science. Members of OPEC have a widely acknowledged interest in maintaining the current importance of traditional energy. In climate negotiations, OPEC members have been natural partners for business lobbies seeking to cast doubt on global warming theory and to dissuade states from proactive measures. So no one was surprised on day one when Mohammad Al-Sabban, head of Saudi Arabia’s delegation to Copenhagen and senior adviser to the Saudi Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources, brought the leaked scientific emails scandal to the summit’s attention.

Al-Sabban declared that "trust" in climate science had been "definitely shaken, especially now that we are about to conclude an agreement that … is going to mean sacrifices for our economies". He refused to accept the assurances of Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that the scientific process is sound, claiming that the scandal "is definitely going to affect the nature of what can be trusted in the negotiations".

The Saudis could not be more at odds with the small island states, which not only accept the consensus climate science but draw from it the conclusion that their very existence is threatened. The government of the Maldives expressed the feelings of many AOSIS members when, in the lead-up to Copenhagen, it held an undersea meeting to illustrate the danger rising sea levels pose to low-lying islands. At Monday’s opening of the Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Convention head Yvo de Boer and conference president Connie Hedegaard were joined on stage by a young Fijian, Leah Wickham. Speaking eloquently of land and identity, Wickham told delegates that island states are "fighting for our culture and for our very right to exist". Momentarily overcome by emotion, she won a standing ovation.

The island states reject the widely held pre-conference target of stabilising temperature increases at not more than 2 degrees Celsius as insufficient. According to AOSIS, an average increase of 2 degrees could still see islanders threatened with the "benign genocide" that Grenada’s prime minister has warned of. Instead, AOSIS proposes action to limit temperature rises to 1.5 degrees. In this they are joined by African states, which contend that an average global temperature rise of 2 degrees would see temperatures in Africa rise by 3.5 degrees.

But here again, the differences within the bloc were clear. China’s influential Energy Research Institute has warned that even the 2-degree target might not leave sufficient room for Chinese development. The institute’s deputy chief, Dai Yande, said: "You should not target China to fulfill the 2-degree target. That is just a vision. Reality has deviated from that vision. We do not think that target provides room for developing countries."

Further rifts in the developing-world bloc have been forced into the open by the appearance of a draft agreement, said to have been written by Denmark and possibly also the US and Britain. The so-called Danish text introduces a new category of "the most vulnerable countries", breaking with the Kyoto Protocol’s binary of "developed" and "developing" countries, and thereby threatening to weaken the developing bloc by breaking it into two.

Following rumours that the leaked draft was circulating, the Monday press conference of the G77 and China was cancelled and members of the press were asked to come back on Tuesday. Tuesday’s conference was not cancelled, but it was delayed for more than three hours before Lumumba Di-Aping — head of the Sudanese delegation and chief G77 negotiator — finally emerged.

Di-Aping attacked the Danish text for attempting to "rob developing countries of their just, applicable and fair share of the atmospheric space" and impose a rich-country deal "on our political leaders". But Di-Aping’s comments on behalf of the G77 and China was evidence of growing divisions within the bloc nonetheless.

Di-Aping railed against developed-country leaders enunciating "noble intentions … followed by malice", and called for "politicians to get to their senses". Earlier, when asked to comment on the Danish text, Chinese lead negotiator Su Wei had merely feigned ignorance. Di-Aping acknowledged that, in response to the Danish text, two competing counter-texts had been prepared: one by Brazil, China, South Africa and India (the so-called BASIC countries) and one by members of AOSIS. He claimed that "the G77 member states will not walk out of these negotiations at this late hour, because we cannot afford failure". When reports were put to him that India and the other BASIC countries were in fact prepared to walk out if faced with an unacceptable deal, Di-Aping finessed the point, saying that what the Indians really meant was that they would not sign such a deal. Owing to their large and growing economies, India, China and Brazil are in a far stronger bargaining position than most of their G77 comrades.

Whatever the provenance and fate of the Danish text, it has hammered the G77 and China with a particularly inconvenient truth: the division of countries into just two classes — "developed" and "developing" — increasingly ignores basic realities. Most pertinent is the rise of the BRIC states, whose economies are interconnected with those of the US and Europe far more than with African and small island nations. There is a complexity of interests abroad that the united G77 and China front does little to conceal.

It is little wonder, then, that the formulation of a G77 response took so long and that the response, when it came, did so little to disguise divisions. The spectrum of "developing" countries has long been stretching. The implications of this for climate negotiations are becoming apparent. The solidarity of the G77 and China bloc is set to be tested as never before.

Read the latest from Stephen Minas at our Copenhagen group blog.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.