Fiona Harvey Climate talks: What India, China and Brazil want

The Major Economies Forum on Energy Security and Climate Change took place in Washington DC on Monday and Tuesday of this week, at which 17 of the world’s biggest emitters, including many developing countries, tried to make progress on forging a successor to the Kyoto protocol, which the United Nations says must be complete by the end of this year.

Breakthroughs were not expected to come out of this forum, which is a rebranding of a Bush initiative, the Major Economies Meeting and takes place outside the auspices of the UN. The Major Economies Forum is expected to yield more substantive results at its next meeting in July. So what did come out of this week’s meeting?

Reports from yesterday’s wrap-up limited, but Hillary Clinton’s speech on Monday that the US was “is fully engaged and ready to lead and determined to make up for lost time, both at home and abroad” gained a lot of attention. Todd Stern, US climate change advisor, was ‘a bit more optimistic‘ about the potential for a global deal. Europeans were less sanguine: German environment minister Sigmar Gabriel commented that while the Americans were ‘moving a lot’ they were still quite far apart from Europe, and his French counterpart Jean-Louis Borloo said Obama’s reduction targets did not go far enough.

Developing countries: Curbs versus cuts

However the role of major developing countries such as China and India, who also attended the meeting, is coming under increased scrutiny as they are pressed to make concessions by agreeing to curb the growth of their greenhouse gas emissions. Rich countries want such concessions before they will agree to financing to help developing countries to achieve low-carbon growth.

In coverage of climate change negotiations, developing economies tend to be lumped together as one by many commentators, ignoring the important differences between them.

For instance, it has been reported that India is resisting the idea of emissions cuts. But that is not the point: no developing country will agree to absolute emissions cuts. The argument is over emissions curbs.

The language is very important here. Curbs to the growth of emissions do not mean absolute cuts in emissions. Curbs – in the UN jargon, deviation from business as usual – mean ensuring that the growth of a developing country’s emissions are lower than they could be expected to be if that country followed the same emissions projectory as has accompanied economic growth in the past.


India will agree to talk about curbs. At a recent UN conference in Bonn, the Indian prime minister’s special envoy, Shyam Saran, made it very clear that his country was willing to talk – on conditions.

Prior to the forum, he said in answer to a question from the Financial Times: “The question [of developing country curbs] should not be divorced from what financial support is available. Rather than ask, are you prepared to deviate from business as usual, the question is what kind of efforts are possible if adequate financial resources and technical resources are made available.”

So, if developed countries come up with some financing, India will talk about curbs.

After the forum, Mr Saran reportedly said that the meeting amounted to “a very candid airing of the different national circumstances that we face,” adding that this allowed delegates “to begin the process of building trust among the major players.”


China is also willing to talk about emissions curbs. This is by no means a new position, as some have suggested – Chinese officials have talked about it for several years, emphasising the actions that China is already taking to reduce the growth in its emissions, such as a big push into renewable energy. Many of the country’s emissions-curbing plans, indeed, are already incorporated into its five-year plan. China’s main gripe is that it has not been receiving enough credit from developed country governments for the efforts it is making.

However, China has not yet laid out any details of what exact commitments it will make in a new international treaty, and nor is it likely to until a much later stage in the negotiations. The commitments are a gambling chip and China is determined to wrest more concessions from developed countries, particularly over rich country commitments to cut emissions, the financing of low-carbon growth in developing countries, and – possibly most important for China – technology transfer.


Brazil has different concerns again, wanting financing in return for helping to stop deforestation in the Amazon. But its approach to financing for deforestation differs hugely from that of other forested nations, even though some observers lump them all in together.

Other developing countries are firmly against discussing emissions curbs, though they tend to be smaller economies than India, China and Brazil.

At the Bonn talks, several developing nations demanded sums of between 1 per cent and 5 per cent of industrialised countries’ gross domestic product as the price for their co-operation. (China has called for 0.5 per cent or 1 per cent.) Again, they are unlikely to receive such sums but we are still at the stage of posturing before the hard negotiations.

Others have demanded stiffer emissions cuts from the rich world. South Africa in particular asked for enormous reductions in emissions from industrialised countries, including a 75 per cent cut in the UK by 2020.

It is important to remember that developing countries do not hold one single position, but a variety of positions. And it is a positive sign that India is willing to discuss emissions curbs – if the price is right.

Related links:

Countries meet to negotiate climate change pact (Washington Post 28/04/09)
India demands climate change cash pledge (FT, 14/04/09)