As has become the norm at yearly UN climate negotiations, the United States and China have laid down irreconcilable demands. While the world’s attention is on the main plot — the conflict between the fading superpower and rising giant — a worrying subplot is playing out at the Durban negotiations this year.
Here’s the scene: China spends its days defending its younger siblings against the big bullies in the international school yard, the industrialised states. At home, China as the de facto breadwinner of the G77 — a group of 132 developing nations — turns the tables and becomes a big bully itself.
Ever since the UN began working on climate change, developing nations have had to look to China and, more recently, other rapidly emerging economies for support.
Consisting of Brazil, South Africa, India and China, the BASIC group accounts for 40 per cent of the world’s population, and has seen a collective GDP growth of over 10 per cent each year since 2000. It is no longer just China who developing nations rely on, but also the regional giants of the developing world.
The allegiance has become pragmatic. The G77 want to ensure their development prospects are not hindered by industrialised nations’ self-inflicted environmental problems.
There’s an urgent need for developing and vulnerable countries to act on climate change but long simmering tensions have come to the boil and are threatening to jeopardise the concerns of the developing world. Currently, BASIC emit roughly 30 per cent of the world’s greenhouse emissions. The future survival of the most vulnerable nations rests on BASIC’s decisions on emissions reductions.
With this in mind, a group of 48 least developed countries (LDCs) last week moved to have a deal finalised by the end of 2012.
"We can no longer afford to wait. We need to conclude the new deal in the next 12 months," Selwin Hart, lead negotiator for Barbados, told the conference on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS). A worst case scenario: a deal by 2015. Any later than that and the situation for vulnerable nations will be catastrophic.
This urgency has driven a wedge between poorer nations and their defenders in the BASIC bloc.
India, Brazil and China currently have policies out of kilter with the needs of the poorer and more vulnerable developing nations. While many developing nations want immediate action from all countries to mitigate the effects they’re feeling now, the three major emerging economies don’t want to restrict their growth rates until at least 2020.
China is in a strong position in the negotiations. Willing to cooperate but unwilling to compromise, it has stated that it will "accept a legally binding arrangement" — provided five pre-conditions are met. China is vague on whether their reductions commitments will actually be legally binding. As a peace offering to LDCs one of China’s conditions is the establishment of the $100 billion Green Climate Fund for developing nations, another sticking point in current negotiations.
While their statement created a buzz throughout the hallways, a 2020 global deal is not the desired outcome for vulnerable nations. A continuation of Kyoto until 2020 essentially locks in low ambitions and ineffectual targets for eight more years. The British journal ‘Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A’ last year suggested current targets put the world on a path to being 4 degrees warmer by 2060. The conservative International Energy Agency recently predicted emissions need to peak by 2017 to avoid "catastrophic and irreversible" levels of climate change. Calling for a new agreement as soon as possible, the chair of the African Group Tosi Mpanu-Mpanu said African nations are concerned because "the Kyoto Protocol makes provisions for people who don’t want it, to get out of it".
Whisperers in the corridors of Durban suggest that Brazil has been strongly encouraging the EU to withdraw its support of the Kyoto Protocol second commitment period. It’s a strange position considering any poor Durban outcomes are going to land on their doorstep at the Rio+20 Summit next June. India meanwhile has outright refused to risk its economic prospects in order to curb emissions, and the Indian Times has reported China’s stance as an affront to India.
It’s a split that is challenging wider geopolitical relationships.
With the EU and the US converging on their desired outcomes here at Durban, the industrialised world is looking much more like a coherent bloc. Imagine a world where a divided group of marginalised nations had to negotiate with powerful united industrialised economies. That’s an even rougher deal for the majority of the world’s people. The split could see developing nations moving out of the shadow of larger economies — but it could just as easily fracture an important counterweight to the climate inertia demonstrated by industrialised nations.
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