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Pollution Pact From China to India Shows Rift: Carbon & Climate

By Reed Landberg and Alex Morales
November 24, 2013 7:00 PM EST 138 Comments
Steam rises from a chimney at the Junliangcheng power station in Tianjin.
Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg
Steam rises from a chimney at the Junliangcheng power station in Tianjin.

China and India’s success in weakening the latest global warming agreement created friction with other developing nations that are seeking to step up the fight against climate change.

The two countries insisted on single-word changes for a deal at a United Nations conference involving 190 nations on Nov. 23. Instead of making “commitments” to roll back fossil fuel emissions, they signed up for “contributions,” a formulation that allows more flexibility in their action.

Those last-minute revisions at a meeting that ran overtime by almost 30 hours underscored the reluctance of China and India to join in the sort of emissions cuts that the European Union is making. It puts the two largest developing nations at odds with their smaller brethren, especially island states and Bangladesh that are the most threatened by rising temperatures.

“There’s all sorts of divisions emerging that weren’t there before,” Alden Meyer, who has been watching the talks for two decades at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in an interview. “If you’re a small island nation, you don’t care if it’s emissions from the U.S. or China causing your country to go under water. You want action.”

The deal adopted this past weekend in Warsaw sets out the first steps toward the next major agreement on reducing the greenhouse gas pollutants blamed for increasing Earth’s temperature. Envoys intend to adopt the package in 2015 and bring it into force from 2020, replacing the Kyoto Protocol, which was negotiated in 1997.

Rising Seas

Kyoto’s limits applied only to industrial nations, leaving only voluntary measures for nations classified as developing, such as China and India. Since then, China has surpassed the U.S. as the world’s biggest polluter, and India is catching up. With emissions at a record, the UN says the world is on track to surpass a 2-degree Celsius temperature increase by 2100 that would raise sea levels and trigger more violent storms.

“We’re leading to a 3- or 4-degree world,” said Gambian envoy Pa Ousman Jarju. “That is catastrophic for the least developed nations, small island states and the African continent.”

The exact wording of the deal is important because it gives a signal to governments and business about the direction of policy. The U.S. and EU preferred “commitments” because it suggests a target all nations will stick to.

Wording Change

China and India sought “actions” as well as extra language that referenced the old divisions between rich and poor nations from the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. That was rejected by developed countries. “Contributions” was the compromise.

“Would I have preferred commitments? Yes,” U.K. Climate Secretary Ed Davey said in an interview at the talks. “But contributions is not bad because it applies to all.”

The typhoon that devastated the Philippines earlier this month struck just as delegates were arriving at the UN talks in the Polish capital. It led to an emotional appeal for action from the Philippine negotiator Yeb Sano, who was joined by more than 100 activists in fasting during the talks.

``There is a growing chorus within the developing world for action from all major emitters,'' said Jake Schmidt, who observed the talks for the Natural Resources Defense Council. ``This voice is coming from countries in Latin America, Africa and the small island states. It will intensify.''

In the past, developing nations both large and small stood together at the UN talks, pressing the industrial world to move first on reducing pollution. Now, the scale of emissions coming from the biggest developing nations is alarming the smaller ones. They pushed at the talks for help from rich countries to contain damages from climate change.

Bangladesh’s Concern

“This is a question of survival,” Quamrul Chowdhury, a negotiator for Bangladesh, said in an interview in Warsaw. “So many millions of people’s lives are at stake, and we are not responsible for this menace. We are innocent victims.”

In the closing hours of the conference, delegates who cared most about the wording gathered in a huddle to determine the phrasing in a text the conference would adopt. Envoys from South Africa and the Marshall Islands were among those who preferred the word “commitments” to “contributions.”

While the smaller countries are pressing for action, China and India sought wiggle room on the nature of pledges they’d have to make for the 2015 deal. The 28-nation EU, along with the U.S., is insisting all nations join in the next pact, since the growth in pollution from China and India mean Kyoto’s limits now apply to less than 15 percent of global emissions.

Fractious Views

Differences like these caused tensions in Warsaw within the G77, a negotiating bloc of 130 developing nations, said Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“The G77 coordination meetings are becoming much more difficult,” Meyer said.

Su Wei, the Chinese lead negotiator at the UN talks, told delegates he had “serious concerns about the word commitment” and that for countries like his own, the next deal should only call for “enhanced actions” on emissions. He brushed aside concerns that China isn’t ready to move on global warming.

“We are very serious to come forward with some kind of actions,” Su said in the interview. “That would certainly be a very important contribution.”

India emphasized the importance of “equity” and “common but differentiated responsibilities.” Those principles are interpreted by developing nations to mean that the richer countries must make a bigger effort to cut emissions than the poorer ones.

“We share the common goal to tackle the threat of climate change,” Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan told delegates at the close of the meeting in Warsaw.

American Frustration

The two-decade-old division frustrates the U.S. and EU, which say global warming can’t be fixed without a stronger effort by those with the quickest growing emissions.

“When you hear some of the things that were said during the course of the week that suggested, ‘We’re not making any commitments; commitments aren’t for developing countries;’ that’s not going to get us where we need to go,” U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern told reporters in Warsaw. “These issues are going to be live, serious and difficult.”

Ministers convene next in December 2014 in Lima, Peru, and then intend to adopt a final package in Paris in two years. It was two years ago in South Africa that China and India backed work toward a treaty in 2015 that would involve all nations, including them.

For Connie Hedegaard, the EU climate commissioner, the lesson of Warsaw is that the issue of the division of responsibilities remains very much alive.

“I’m absolutely sure our way to Paris is not going to be a walk in the park,” Hedegaard told reporters in Warsaw as the conference ended. “It’s high time we do not have to spend more time on what we agreed two years ago.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Reed Landberg in Warsaw, Poland at landberg@bloomberg.net; Alex Morales in Warsaw at amorales2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Reed Landberg at landberg@bloomberg.net

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