The Copenhagen positioning of China and India – not always what it seems

Some people may be confused as to the positions of developing countries in the negotiations leading up to Copenhagen. That is not surprising, as they are confusing. Here are some pointers, and some myths busted.

Q. India and China keep saying they will not take on binding targets to cut their emissions or caps on their emissions. This scuppers a deal, right?

A. Wrong. For a start, India and China are not being asked to take on binding targets to cut their emissions. They are, along with other developing countries, being asked to take on “nationally appropriate mitigation actions”, or NAMAs. (Mitigation, in the climate change context, always means cutting or curbing emissions. It never refers to adjusting to the effects of climate change – that is called adaptation.)

These NAMAs would set out “measurable, reportable and verifiable” actions that the countries would take to curb the growth of their emissions in future. These actions include investing in energy efficiency and renewable sources of energy.

India and China have both begun to take many such measures, and they have pledged to increase these. In fact, if China is successful in meeting its own targets – as it has been in the past – then according to the IEA it will be the biggest single contributor to global emissions reductions by 2020.

Neither country has yet agreed to “internationalise” or formalise their pledges, as developed countries are asking them to do. But it would not be difficult for them to do so, and this could come at a later stage of the talks.

Q. So why do they keep saying they will not take on binding targets?

A. Partly to look tough, and to put the developed countries on the back foot. Also because they are, with some other developing countries, opposed to setting a global target on halving emissions by 2050, which developed countries have asked for in the past.

Although a global target of 50 per cent cuts by 2050 would not impose specific national limits on India, China or anyone else (almost all developed countries have set their own national targets for 2020 and 2050), India and China are concerned that if they signed up to such a target it might subsequently be used against them – developed countries could in the future try to extrapolate national emissions targets from it.

But developed countries are unlikely to insist on the global 2050 target for developing countries at the expense of a deal on other issues. Oh, and they can take comfort in the fact that India and China have already signed up to a long term goal. It is of limiting global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures, a level that scientists regard as the limit of safety beyond which warming is likely to become catastrophic and irreversible.

However in practice, a halving of global emissions by 2050, compared with 1990 levels, is what scientists have posited must be achieved to have a hope of staying within the 2 degree limit. But while China and India are happy with the one, they aren’t with the other.

Q. What else are China and India insisting on from developed countries at the talks?

A. They want developed countries to agree to national emissions cuts in the range of 25 to 40 per cent, compared with 1990 levels, by 2020. Most developed countries have committed to cuts, but they come in below this range. The EU has pledged 20 per cent, rising to 30 per cent if other countries agree comparable targets. Japan has pledged 25 per cent.

But the US has yet to set a firm target, and the range of targets under consideration – 17 per cent in the Waxman-Markey bill, 20 per cent in the Kerry-Boxer bill, both compared with 2005 levels – do not come close to what the scientists say is needed.

There could be room for manoeuvre here, however. The US starts from a different place to other developed countries, as its emissions and population have risen in the past decade. In terms of effort required to meet the targets from today, it is not so different from the EU, which would need to cut emissions by less than 18 per cent from today’s levels to meet its target.

Q. What do they want on financing?

A. Developing countries want financing from developed countries in order to help them adapt to the effects of climate change, and to help them cut emissions. They also want access to technology to help them cut emissions.

Let’s take technology first. For years, developing countries – led by China – clamoured for “technology transfer”. This meant the free donation of intellectual property from companies in rich countries. Naturally, this idea was never going to fly. Even if rich country governments had agreed, they had no means to force their companies to give away their patents.

But the negotiations have taken a more constructive turn of late, with developing countries talking more of technology collaboration and cooperation. This could mean companies collaborating, with government assistance or approval, on new low-carbon technologies, such as carbon capture and storage.

This also reflects the reality of low-carbon technology deployment on the ground in the developing world. While negotiators have been stuck in anachronistic demands for technology transfer, companies have been quietly getting on with developing and deploying low-carbon equipment across borders. Companies such as General Electric, Siemens and Vestas have moved to manufacture wind turbines in the developing world, chiefly China but also India. China is now one of the world’s biggest makers of wind turbines and the biggest exporter of solar panels. Other low-carbon technologies are also taking off. These developments have made calls for tech transfer look increasingly out of date.

But, in one of the twists that bedevil climate change talks, India recently reopened these old debates by demanding free access to low-carbon technology in a similar way to the successful demands for lower-cost HIV/Aids drugs. One step forward, two steps back.

Q. Interesting. But what about financing – who pays for those efforts to reduce emissinos?

A. The more general issue of financing is still a minefield.

China and India want developed countries to give developing countries billions – $100bn a year by 2020 is one figure that has been bandied about, originating with estimates from NGOs as to how much adapting to climate change will cost developing countries by then – in assistance to cope with the effects of climate change.

There is stiff resistance in developed countries to granting aid of this nature to rapidly emerging economies, and China in particular, as a recent FT poll showed. The idea of asking developed country taxpayers in the midst of a recession to part with billions for their rapidly rising industrial rival is another that lacks certain aerodynamic qualities.

An alternative is to set up a system – such as a carbon trading system, like that set up under the Kyoto protocol – that would encourage investment from the private sector. Private sector companies could invest in emissions reduction projects in developing countries, perhaps with some incentives from rich country governments, and this would generate the finance flows needed.

Sounds good? Yes, but for India and China this is not enough. They also want rich country governments to pledge much more money than they have been willing to do to date, from their own public coffers. They insist this is necessary as rich countries bear historic responsibility for climate change. The payments would be almost like reparations for the damage done.

As with other reparations, they are not at all popular with the countries expected to do the repairing.

Q. Oh dear. And as for the Kyoto protocol – what will happen to it?

A. The Kyoto protocol is another sticking point in the talks, and a largely unnecessary one.

A bit of history – the 1997 protocol required rich countries to cut their emissions by an average of 5 per cent during its “first commitment period”, and made no demands on poor countries to curb their greenhouse gases. But the US, having signed up to the protocol, never ratified it. Other countries are falling well behind on their commitments under the agreement, although the EU is nearly on track to squeeze its emissions close to the right level thanks partly to policy measures and partly to the recession.

The protocol’s first commitment period ends in 2012. Legally, the protocol will continue to be binding but in practice if no further commitment period is agreed then countries will have no targets to cut their emissions.

Some developing countries want any new agreement reached at Copenhagen to include new commitments under the Kyoto protocol.

But many developed countries think this is daft, particularly the US. The US will not sign up to the Kyoto protocol now any more than it would in the last decade. Therefore any agreement that is a continuation of it has no chance of success in the US. And as Kyoto showed, any agreement the US does not sign up to is functionally little better than useless.

There are alternatives. The US is a signatory to the parent treaty of Kyoto, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. So a new treaty could take the legal form of a new protocol or other arrangement under that treaty.

But this, again, might be too close to the Kyoto protocol for comfort.

A third possibility is a new legal framework altogether, which would get rid of the problem of Kyoto’s baggage and allow all parties to participate on a new footing.

But while some developing countries insist that the Kyoto protocol must remain the key basis for negotiations, the US – and the whole negotiating process – will continue to be frustrated.

Q. Blimey. So it looks like no deal at Copenhagen then?

A. On the contrary, the prospects for international cooperation on climate change haven’t looked brighter for more than 10 years.

Some of the differences in opinion are likely to be resolved as the talks enter their final stages. Although difficult sticking points remain, the basics for a deal are not so very hard to achieve. All developed countries apart from the US have emissions targets which, although they fall short of what scientists advise, are not a bad start. Key developing countries have pledged domestic actions and adherence to a 2 degree limit on warming. Some deals on technology and some finance for adaptation are on the table, though they fall short of what is being demanded. And everyone says they want a deal – no one wants to be seen as the deal-breaker.

As is the case with any negotiations, countries tend not to come up with their final negotiating positions and compromises until very late in the process, taking disagreements on some issues right up to the deadline before forging a compromise. No one should be surprised that this is happening in these talks.

If everything cannot be resolved at Copenhagen, countries may be able to continue to work on resolving some key issues into next year. And turning an agreement in Copenhagen into a fully articulated legal treaty is also a task that can be completed next year or in 2011.

The difficulties of finding an agreement at Copenhagen should not be underrated. But neither is the deep gloom and cynicism reigning in some quarters justified.

Related links:

Analysis: Heating up (FT, 03/11/09)
Progress on Copenhagen: Two down, two to go (FT Energy Source, 20/10/90)
China’s place in the green energy world (FT Energy Source, 30/09/09)

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