Pollution Pact From China to India Shows Rift
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.
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.
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.
“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.”