Friday, December 18, 2009


In many ways, the final hours of negotiations are coming down to the question of whether or not China and the US can come to terms on an agreement (most likely political) that will not only satisfy both of them but also the rest of the parties involved in the UN climate conference here in Copenhagen. Realistically, any deal that does not include both will be considered a political failure and perhaps the last best chance the international framework set up by the UN has of successfully combating climate change. Together, the US and China account for half the world's greenhouse gas emissions.

That does not necessarily mean that any agreement reached will avoid the catastrophic effects of warming, but there are no other options that would represent a broad coalition of countries acting in concert to address what the Prime Minister of Grenada described as "the moral imperative of saving the planet".

Throughout the conference there has been a steady drumbeat of issues constantly coming up again and again acting at every turn as roadblocks preventing broad agreement. In his speech this morning to the Informal high-level plenary, Wen Jiabo reiterated the main themes that China has been consistently echoing throughout: 1) maintaining the consistency of outcomes, 2) upholding the fairness of rules, 3) paying attention to the practicality of the targets, and 4) ensuring the effectiveness of institutions. What does all this mean?

The first is really all about maintaining the integrity of the Kyoto Protocol. The G77 and China have been at the forefront of a bloc of countries pushing to keep the two-track solution. Countries have been working on negotiating these complicated issues literally for years and they want to ensure that everything that has been gained through this process is not thrown out at the last minute and superseded by a text that is pushed on them by the industrialized countries.

The US plays into this because they are not signatories to the Kyoto Protocol and in many ways, are only now re-entering negotiations after having been relatively unengaged during the Bush years. They either need to decide whether they can live with the agreements reached during that time (most prominently the Kyoto Protocol and the Bali Roadmap) or whether they must be wholly replaced by a new agreement.

The second issue raised by Wen Jiabo is shorthand for the understanding that industrialized and developing countries have "common but differentiated differences" in trying to solve the climate crisis. The Chinese government and most developing countries see this issue as one of simple fairness. They didn't create the problem, they shouldn't pay the cost of solving it at the expense of developing their economies. Premier Wen framed this argument by pointing out the vast numbers of Chinese that are living in poverty despite the fact that they have made great strides in recent years.

From the perspective of the US, China is in a fundamentally different position than the economies of developing nations like Sudan or Mali. They may be a developing nation but one that also qualifies as one of the major economies of the world rivaling those of the historically industrialized nations. President Obama said as much in his comments today by demanding that "all major economies" must be willing to make commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions. This was a distinct shift in the terminology used to blur the traditionally employed distinction between "industrialized" and "developing" countries.

An interesting side note that I have never heard raised in these formal meetings (perhaps it was discussed more extensively in previous COP's) is whether at some point a nation designated as "developing" can ever transform into an industrialized country or whether these are historically defined terms that ignore the present-day state of a nations' economic development. To the US, China enjoys the status of being one of the world's larges economic powers while being able to receive development aid from institutions like the UN. In this sense, China really is both industrialized and developing. The economic development of the major urban centers such as Shanghai, Chongqing, Guangzhou, and Wuhan have created enclaves of prosperity that are truly impressive and rival anything industrialized countries have to offer. Much of the countryside is a different place altogether and does resemble the developing country Premier Wen speaks of when he describes China as developing.

Obama also spent much of his speech referring to the importance of "transparency" in any final agreement. Much of this has to do with issues I discussed in an earlier post concerning China's reluctance to allow for independent oversight of progress a nation makes towards meeting the emission targets delineated in any agreement. Obama talked of the necessity of this when he stated, "I don’t know how you have an international agreement where we all are not sharing information and ensuring that we are meeting our commitments. That doesn’t make sense. It would be a hollow victory."

For Premier Wen, this is consistent with the longstanding position of the Chinese government in not accepting any violations of a nations sovereignty. The borders of a nation must be respected as the domain of that country. In this issue, there is a great deal of solidarity between the Chinese position and many in the US who recoil at the prospect of international organizations like the UN having any authority or rights within the US that are not explicitly granted by the US.

The last two points Wen Jiabo made are less contentious between parties. Most parties agree that there needs to be far more action on climate change and less talk and also that the industrialized world needs to speed (and fund) technology transfer, capacity building, and adaptation for the worlds poorest nations. On these two points there is general agreement by all parties. Now is the time to work out the sticky details associated with coming to an agreement on the first two. Everyone is waiting on China and the US to resolve this dispute.

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