Submissions on a UN climate treaty are starting to flood in – and they show just how many differences remain
By Gerard Wynn
Wide, long-standing differences remain among national proposals from the world’s biggest carbon emitters for a global climate deal meant to be agreed next year.
Countries have committed to agree a deal in Paris in 2015 which cuts carbon emissions and prepares for unavoidable climate change, for implementation from 2020.
The scale of remaining differences shows that countries may fall short of a comprehensive deal, as they did five years ago at a UN conference in Copenhagen.
The alternative, as emerged in Copenhagen, would be a deal based on voluntary pledges with no overarching global targets, and international rules to be resolved in subsequent years, if at all.
Proposals submitted in the past three months by the United States, China, the European Union and Russia show how countries are split on the level of ambition of carbon cuts.
Equally significantly, a long-standing disagreement remains over how to divide effort between developed and developing countries, a flashpoint whose impact should not be under-estimated.
In a related source of suspicion and rhetoric, countries are divided on whether developed economies could source financial aid for poorer nations from the private or public sector, and whether they should also supply low carbon technology assistance.
Countries are presently adopting familiar negotiating positions and roles.
China has adopted its default position that the legal roles of developed and developing countries should remain systematically differentiated, as in the 1992 Climate Change Convention treaty, where every aspect of a deal would refer to an annex listing two separate lists of countries.
“The 2015 agreement shall be based and built on the structure and provisions of the Convention … the differentiation between developed and developing country Parties, with developed country Parties taking the lead,” the Chinese submission said.
“The Annexes of the Convention shall continue to be relevant and applicable.”
An agreement would specify greater effort for developed countries in every department, including ambition of carbon cuts, supply of finance, the sharing of low carbon technology and the transparent publication of information on actions taken.
China’s position is robustly supported by other developing countries, including a group calling itself the “Like-minded developing countries in climate change”, and which includes China, India and Saudi Arabia among others.
The United States has emphasised that it will not accept a deal which rigidly differentiates between the obligations of rapidly emerging and industrialised economies.
“We would not support a bifurcated approach to the new agreement, particularly one based on groupings that may have made sense in 1992 but that are clearly not rational or workable in the post‐2020 era,” it said.
Climate change is one of the few remaining policy arenas where Russia and the United States agree. Both countries state that developing countries may have less onerous commitments, depending on their national wealth, but that their legal participation should be the same.
The European Union is emerging as the most ambitious, conciliatory developed country party, and seems likely to take a familiar role cajoling other industrialised nations including the United States, Canada, Russia and Japan to do more.
The EU also insists, however, that all countries, including developing nations, “have legally binding mitigation commitments”.
The formal division of responsibilities between emerging and industrialised economies is the main flashpoint: it is written through developing country proposals, and flatly rejected by the United States and Russia.
A related issue is how far developed countries should provide aid for developing nations to cut carbon emissions and prepare for unavoidable climate change.
For example, China said this should be public funding, which is considered more reliable than private sector finance.
“Developed countries (are) to provide new, additional, adequate, predictable and sustained public funds to support developing country Parties in the post-2020 period to meet the agreed full costs or incremental costs of the preparation and implementation of their enhanced action,” it said.
The United States ruled out the supply solely of public money, referring to an agreement in Copenhagen in 2009 for developed countries to help raise $100 billion annually by 2020.
“The Copenhagen goal acknowledges the role of private sector finance by calling for mobilization, rather than provision, of funds.”
Another flashpoint is ambition.
In 2010, countries agreed at a climate conference in Cancun, Mexico, to a long-term global goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions which limited global average warming to below 2C above pre-industrial levels.
Among the main submissions so far, only the EU explicitly mentioned the 2C target (10 times in its brief proposal).
The United States and China did not include the target in their essential elements for a 2015 deal. Russia appeared to pull back, saying that a 2C target should not be used to define national carbon emissions targets.
A third flashpoint is the eventual legal strength of the agreement. The EU said it should be a formal protocol under the 1992 Convention. The United States and China said this should be left to negotiators.
The division of responsibilities between developed and developing countries has sucked negotiating time from hammering out technical details of an agreement, such as accounting methods for measuring greenhouse gas emissions.
That, in turn, may leave national leaders with too little time and substance to agree a hugely complicated international agreement, as emerged in Copenhagen.
The split is also fundamental to the technical detail, since it concerns the carbon emissions commitments of individual countries.
On the positive side, developed countries certainly accept that they may take on more ambitious commitments.
What is left to agree is how developed and developing countries are referred to in an agreement, for example whether a formal division into two categories is acceptable, as seems unlikely, to countries including the United States and Russia.
Even if that issue is resolved, then the remaining problems including the legal form and ambition of an agreement loom large, however.
As the EU said: “With less than two years to secure an ambitious 2015 Agreement at (the conference) in Paris, the work that lies before us is challenging.”