Global Trends by Martin Khor

8 December 2008

Slow progress at climate talks

The Climate Convention talks in Poland made slow progress last week, with the issues causing the impasse becoming more clear. The talks continue for another week.


After one week, and with another week to go, the global talks at the old Polish town of Poznan have enabled many countries to explain their positions and explore possible solutions. 

This has been useful.  But it has failed so far to break the impasse on how much action to take to cut emissions of Greenhouse Gases that cause climate change, nor on the extent of actions that different countries should take.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking away, with more signs of the seriousness of the climate crisis.  A few prominent scientists recently concluded that it is no longer enough to limit the concentration of Greenhouse Gases in the atmosphere to 450 parts per million (ppm), but that 350 ppm is a more realistic target if we are to avoid disastrous climatic effects. 

One problem is that the present concentration, at around 370 ppm, has already passed that danger level.  Not only does the world need to cut emissions, but the sinks (such as forests) that absorb emissions from the atmosphere have to be expanded.

At Poznan, the developing countries continue to argue that the developed countries have to commit to drastically cut their emissions, and that so far they have not even implemented their present commitments.

While they have also agreed to take their own actions, the developing countries are not prepared to take binding targets, arguing that it is the richer countries that have to act first as they are historically responsible for most of the emissions, and that they the developing countries need some “environmental space” to grow their economies. 

It is no secret that some developed countries such as the United States, Japan and Australia want some developing countries to also join them in taking binding commitments to cut emissions.  Implicit in their approach is that this must be agreed to, otherwise there may be no overall agreement.  A global climate deal is scheduled by the end of 2009.

At Poznan last week, Japan caused ripples by proposing that the definition of developed and developing countries be changed, and that some developing countries should be re-classified as “Annex I parties” to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The list of parties in Annex I (which are obliged to reduce their emissions by specified percentages) comprises developed countries.  Japan’s proposal is that some developing countries have to “graduate” to join the Annex I category.   Its graduation criteria include GNP per capita and share of global emissions.    

Countries named previously have included Singapore and Korea, and it is well known that many developed countries like the United States want to include China.

However, for the G77 and China (the umbrella group of developing countries), any attempt at differentiating the developing countries is taboo, and will poison the atmosphere in the climate talks.

Last week, the group said it rejected any proposal directed towards differentiating between non-Annex I parties, such as amendments to the Convention or any of its Annexes with a view to establishing new categories of countries to undertake mitigation commitments.

China added that any attempt to revise the Convention or redefine 'developed' and 'developing countries' and its sub-divisions is “not constructive, but destructive.”  Singapore said the per capita GNP criterion is inappropriate.

At another session, the Chair of the working group tasked with reaching a global deal by 2009 said that the countries cannot continue with “business as usual” in providing finance and technology to developing countries for their climate action.

Luis Machado of Brazil said the existing framework under the Convention has not worked and there was need to think of something else.

The G77 and China reminded the meeting that it had submitted two proposals on reforming and upgrading the finance and technology structures under the Convention, and asked for responses.

The group had proposed setting up a multilateral climate fund under the UNFCCC with multiple windows for technology, mitigation, adaptation and so on.  It also wants a new Technology Council to make policies on technology and to implement technology transfer.

Many developed countries spoke, but their response to the G77 and China was at best lukewarm.  There was no clear indication that they would agree to the creation of the two new bodies.  Japan even linked progress on the finance issue to its own proposal on graduating some developing countries to be developed countries that would then be required to also contribute to the funding.

The finance and technology issues are critical because the Convention (in its Article 4.7) says that the extent to which developing countries can take climate actions depends on the extent to which the developed countries meet their commitments to provide finance and technology to the developing countries.

So far, 15 years after the Convention was set up, little funding has been made available, and hardly any technology has been transferred.  At the climate talks, the developing countries are pressing the developed countries to get serious on this, while most of the latter are behaving like they want to wriggle out of the Article 4.7 bargain.

These are some of the issues at the heart of the impasse in the climate talks. The Poznan meeting continues this week, and a breakthrough is not yet in sight, although there are still hopes of some progress.