US-China pact has shifted the dynamics of climate talks

India is looking for new allies, Peru wants to bring Latin Americans together and Europe needs to get its mojo back

There will be disruption in Lima next month (Pic: Flickr/Geraint Rowland)

There will be disruption in Lima next month
(Pic: Flickr/Geraint Rowland)

By Liz Gallagher

The end of last year’s UN climate conference in Warsaw saw many countries’ true colours emerge with the likes of Brazil, Singapore and Australia attempting to dilute ambition of the 2015 agreement.

These actors usually fly under the radar, but their actions show the gravitas these countries place on the prospects of a global deal in Paris.

So often in the history of the UNFCCC the realities of climate action on the ground often bear no relation to negotiation positions. Negotiators stick to their conventional positions with traditional allies.  But as we draw nearer to Paris this is starting to change.

The backdrop to Lima shows momentum for a global agreement on climate is building. But such political energy from the past few months will need to land somewhere; the political space ahead of Paris has expanded. Peru will face the unusual task of channeling better politics.

COP20 in Lima by all accounts will show how the traditional political dynamics of the negotiations are evolving as countries better understand how climate change interacts with their national interest. The real negotiations are about to begin.

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A core driver of this disruptive dynamic is the recent US-China climate pact. This agreement with personal commitment at the highest political levels is likely to ruffle a few feathers among the negotiators.  But what does this mean for diplomatic alliances in Lima?

China has traditionally hedged its bets when it comes to alliances, engaging with both the BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) and the LMDC (like-minded developing countries) groups. While minister Xie Zhenhua and president Xi Jinping have been constructive forces in seeking a multilateral agreement on climate change, the recent announcement catapults China into a brighter spotlight. More eyes will be upon them.  More questions will be asked about their tactics inside of the negotiations.

But it’s not only about how China responds in the negotiations, but also how their traditional allies react. Senior Indian official have already noted China’s increased responsibility. Prime minister Narendra Modi has been taking a keen interest in domestic and international climate politics, and his modernisation and reform agenda could shift India’s traditional negotiation stances. Media reports suggest India is looking to distance itself from China, but who would they seek as alternative allies?

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The US-China dynamic puts Brazil in an awkward space. The recent elections didn’t change much domestically, but the US-China dynamic really puts the pressure on Brazil to step up internationally. Brazil has often been a solitary figure in negotiations. Even its engagement with BASIC, forest nations and G77 serves its own agenda. The Peruvian COP presidency is determined to use Lima as a platform to bridge stronger connections in Latin America. Will Brazil join this solidarity endeavour and take on the “can do” attitude of the AILAC (independent association of Latin America and the Caribbean)?

Despite being the first to announce its offer, the surprise announcements on the US-China pact stole some of the limelight from Europe’s climate and energy package. Since Durban, Europe’s been struggling to get its mojo back. Those developing countries inside the Durban alliance have felt frustrated with Europe’s inability to engage on issues like finance and adaptation. Could the fresh new faces of commissioner Miguel Arias Canete and his team could wipe the slate clean and build bridges with their natural allies in developing countries?

And finally, the US-China pact will give no more excuses for inaction by the likes of Japan, Australia and Canada. These countries that normally hide behind the US, but could end up feeling a little exposed. How will both international climate politics and broader geopolitics play a role in emboldening of disempowering these countries?

There are many angles to how the US-China agreement could play out in Lima. But one thing is for certain: they will play out. Whether this be empowering or infuriating, this disruption will kick-start the journey to Paris, creating an exciting and volatile prospect for the negotiations ahead.  Watch this space…

Liz Gallagher specialises in climate diplomacy at E3G

Read more on: Comment & Analysis | COP20 | UN climate talks