China flexes its muscle as climate talks end with slow progress

At the first climate talks of the Trump era, a coalition of developing countries, with China at its centre, won small but significant victories

The UN climate talks plenary in Bonn (Photo: UNclimatechange)


As UN climate talks drew towards a close on Friday night – barring some minor scuffling – China’s lead envoy Xie Zhenhua strode up and down the Bonn conference centre from meeting to meeting making his presence felt.

China’s top climate negotiator, once courted by the Obama administration, sits at the centre of a coalition of developing countries that won the day in Bonn.

At the first major climate conference since Donald Trump made clear his intention to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement, an often divided group of 130 developing nations were “united as never before”, said Xie, and had successfully extracted concessions from developed countries on early climate action.

“The results have largely met developing countries’ demands,” he said after a draft decision on the pre-2020 arrangements was agreed by parties earlier this week.

That fight was pushed primarily by a group of countries from the developing world that is currently fronted by Iran, but dominated by China. Other developing countries fell in behind them.

According to some observers, the group of four major emerging economies known as Basic – Brazil, South Africa, India and China – also worked in abnormal concert throughout the talks, piling draft negotiating texts full of language that split the world into rich and poor.

This issue, which eases responsibility for middle income countries, was anathema to the US before Trump and remained a “top priority” for the Trump delegation in Bonn. White House advisor George David Banks told Politico the US team in Bonn had been “indispensable” in “thwarting” efforts to write this differentiation into the Paris rules. But the real fight will be next year when the drafts must be agreed. The reemergence of this issue signals poor countries plan to make things difficult for the US and their rich world allies.

China’s lead climate negotiator Xie Zhenhua at the 2017 Bonn talks (Photo: Carbon Brief)

Gebru Jember Endalew, the chair of the least developed countries group, which is not traditionally sympathetic to China, agreed that the conference of parties (Cop) had been a coup for the world’s poorer nations.

“This has been the best Cop – not a traditional Cop. It is a very important Cop. I believe that all the required issues have been [going] in the right direction,” he said.

This cohesion between poor and middle income countries may be a sign China’s enormous belt and road overseas investment initiative, which will send trillions into developing countries in the coming decades, is broadening China’s influence.

“This is an inevitable result of international climate diplomacy in the post-US era,” said Li Shuo, senior campaigner for Greenpeace East Asia. “The international climate regime will have multiple poles in the years to come, and the Basic group will become one important force.”

“Trump has left a political vacuum,” said David Waskow, the director of climate change at the World Resources Institute. “But other countries made very clear they are willing to fill it.”

Xie denied that a low-profile performance of the US delegations would give developing countries an easier ride. Negotiators inside the rooms pointed to a “less visible” US delegation. But the Obama-era diplomats remained “engaged” and made “judicious” interventions along the same lines they have taken for years.

A senior developing country negotiator said: “They are less visible than they used to be, but their priorities are clear. There’s a strong sense of continuity.”

Report: Developing countries win concessions on early climate action at UN talks

This continuity of personnel and priorities is part of what insulates the climate regime from outside shocks. Countries work in blocs, meaning that national politics is diluted. The diplomats who conduct this work are mostly familiar faces, even friends. This community effect shouldn’t be underestimated. They have a lot of skin in this game and care deeply for each other and the process.

But the same insulation also detaches these talks from what happens outside.

This conference took place across two campuses at opposite ends of Bonn’s huge Rheinaue park. In the UN climate change headquarters negotiators laboured over procedural decisions – many describing a “low energy” atmosphere. Even on Friday night, as talks dragged into the late hours and skirmishes broke out over climate finance and an emissions stocktake, the stakes were low.

Of the two major world leaders to turn up – Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel – only the French leader was able to inject a sense of intensity. Merkel was hamstrung by the ongoing negotiations for the German coalition government, in which the Greens are pushing her hard on the country’s missed carbon targets and heavy coal use.

At the other end of the Rheinaue, in the ‘Bonn Zone’, a cavalcade of ‘climate solutions’ were on show for two weeks. All the cities, regions, companies and indigenous peoples who say they have the answers were given a space. The US president was able to demonstrate his backing for US energy companies and their workers. The event, which included a Peabody coal executive, was interrupted by a ten minute singing protest that had been signed off by the White House. It was a moment of staged drama that gave Trump a political win.

Walking the halls of the Bonn Zone you could meet Pacific islanders, mayors from Cameroon, advocates for hydrogen fuels, even Arnold Schwarzenegger – “if someone tells you to wait [to act on climate], tell them eff yooooo”. It wasn’t pretty, but it wasn’t low energy.

The difference between the two zones was symbolic, but it also represents the reaction Paris unleashed in the real economy. The world is going to spend $7.3 trillion on clean energy in the next few decades; the fight over who gets it is heating up.

The three stories that defined the conference happened outside the negotiating rooms; the UK and Canada launched a global call to end coal, signing up 18 countries; the Trump administration’s successful attempt to bring its energy industry into the climate conversation; and the intervention of the US cities and states who camped themselves outside the main entrance of the meeting.

COP23: Coal deals ‘very possible’ as US holds industry event at UN climate talks

Meanwhile, negotiators are still stuck on working out exactly how the Paris Agreement will work, a task far more technically complex than the deal itself.

“In here, we are becoming detached from the real world,” said one negotiator in the plenary hall.

This feeling was exacerbated by the place this conference occupied in the multi-year process of brokering a global climate deal. The Bonn talks were always billed as a “technical meeting”; one at which the rules of the Paris deal were drafted, but not decided.

“There have to be boring meetings,” said another negotiator. “We cannot save the world every year.”

Sapped of political impetus, the diplomats “paced themselves”, said Tosi Mpanu Mpanu, the lead negotiator for the Democratic Republic of the Congo, adding he was “soul searching” as the talks came to an end.

“Nobody was able to go further [than predicted],” he said. “It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Had we been more hopeful, maybe things would have gone differently.”

What was achieved?

  • An important step towards motivating countries to do more to cut carbon, earlier. The ‘Talanoa Dialogue’, a process rebranded by the Fijian presidency of the talks, will see all countries report their progress to one another over the coming 12 months.
  • The rules of the Paris agreement began to take shape. Although most negotiators believe an extra session will be needed before the next major talks in Poland in December 2018.
  • Countries agreed to create special platforms for gender issues and indigenous peoples to be more influential on decisions taken by the UN climate process.

Ultimately, after a year of Trump hysteria, the show ground on. But the focus was elsewhere. When these talks return in Poland next December, an emboldened developing world will drive home its newfound strength.

Climate Home News’ reporting at Cop23 is supported in part by the European Climate Foundation.

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