Tianjin Climate Meeting Delivers Little, Overshadowed by US-China Spat

13 October 2010

The latest round of United Nations climate change talks in Tianjin, China made little headway before closing last Saturday, casting further doubt onto whether governments will be able to take meaningful steps towards a global treaty on reducing greenhouse gas emissions when they meet in Cancun next month.

Overshadowing the discussions in Tianjin were increasingly sharp exchanges between Chinese and US officials, which have given rise to concerns that the talks in the Mexican beach resort might even see the UN-led process slide backwards from the disappointing outcome and aftermath of last year's climate summit in Copenhagen. It is already clear that the Cancun meeting will not produce a new global agreement on curbing greenhouse gas emissions; hopes for that have already turned to the 2011 UN climate summit in South Africa.

Meanwhile, developing countries' fears of climate-motivated trade sanctions are returning to the fore, and a group of some of the largest emerging economies reiterated its call for the UN text to prohibit the use of unilateral border tariffs in the name of curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

The talks in Tianjin, from 4-9 October, were the last formal session in the UN climate talks before the conference of the parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), scheduled to start in late November in Cancun. Two major issues were supposed to be the object of discussions in Tianjin: climate finance and the procedures that will be used to check whether countries fulfil their obligations with regards to cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Both are key elements of the Copenhagen Accord, the framework deal that emerged from last year's climate summit in the Danish capital.

As part of the Copenhagen Accord, developed countries promised to make $30 billion of "fast start" financing available from 2010 to 2012 to support developing countries' plans to mitigate and adapt to climate change. This amount was supposed to rise to an annual $100 billion by 2020. In return, developing countries, including the largest ones, promised that they would subject their efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions to measurement, reporting and verification (MRV).

This balance between funding from developed countries and accountability from developing countries was at the heart of talks in Tianjin. But by the end of the week, countries seemed even further apart than they were in Copenhagen.

Concerns persist about whether climate finance would be "additional" to planned flows of development aid. Agreement on the "Green Fund" mechanism for distributing the aid also remains elusive; options discussed in Tianjin included some form of financial board and advisory panel that would then also put in place the architecture of a global climate fund. The US proposed having finance ministers work on the details, a suggestion that has raised concern among developing countries.

Brazil, South Africa, India, and China, which make up the so-called "BASIC" group of large developing countries, are pushing back against the demands they are facing for international scrutiny of their emissions reduction efforts. As justification, they cite the inadequacy of rich countries' pledges, in terms of both slashing their own emissions and providing financial and technical support to help the developing world mitigate and adapt to climate change.

In a meeting of their own held immediately after the Tianjin gathering, the BASIC countries attempted to reach out to the Association of Small Island States (AOSIS), a group of countries extremely vulnerable to rising sea levels that has been calling for stricter curbs on global emissions than those favoured by countries like China and India, in an attempt to win their support. Grenada, which currently chairs AOSIS, attended the BASIC group meeting, and the final BASIC communiqué "recognised [the] diversity of views on more ambitious aspirational objectives" for limiting global temperature increases, according to a report in The Hindu newspaper.

China, US trade barbs

The UN climate negotiations have increasingly come to resemble the WTO's long-struggling Doha Round of trade talks, with crucial countries solemnly insisting that they are willing to be flexible and make concessions - so long as others  do so first. While saying "you first" might ordinarily be considered polite, the indirect exchange between top US and Chinese officials on the margins of last week's negotiations was anything but.

In a speech at the University of Michigan law school last Friday, US trade envoy Todd Stern said that "Chinese negotiators have acted almost as though the [Copenhagen] Accord never happened, insisting on legally binding commitments for developed countries and purely voluntary actions for even the emerging markets."  He accused Beijing of taking a position that "walks away from the parallel structure on mitigation" (along with financing) that was critical to Washington's acceptance of the accord.

Su Wei, a senior Chinese climate change negotiator hit back, mocking the US criticism as a lame attempt to deflect attention from its own failures to cut emissions. "It amounts to doing nothing themselves and then shirking responsibility," he told journalists in Tianjin, reports Reuters. The US "has no measures or actions to show for itself, and instead it criticizes China, which is actively taking measures and actions," he said. Su likened the US to Zhu Bajie, a gluttonous part-pig, part-human character in classical Chinese literature known for preening himself before a mirror despite his horrible appearance.

Cancun expectations

Inside the negotiating rooms in Tianjin, officials focused on what the Cancun meeting might plausibly be able to deliver.

One potential outcome that governments considering is a set of discrete "decisions" on specific topics that are ripe for agreement: technology, adaptation, "REDD-plus" (which pertains to reducing emissions from deforestation and land degradation), agriculture, and market mechanisms.

The technology discussions considered establishing a Technology Mechanism, the option to create networks and information centres. Negotiators also discussed the possibility of creating a committee that would continue working on details for how an eventual Technology Mechanism or agreement might work.

On adaptation, the current draft text includes options for a new Adaptation Protocol, and the establishment of a more robust Adaptation Fund (which would be separate from, yet connected to, the existing Adaptation Fund linked to the Kyoto Protocol). Developing countries were fighting amongst themselves over who should receive priority for adaptation funding. Many oil producing states continue to insist that funding for adaptation also be available to cover the adverse effects of response measures - in other words, provide compensation and support to fossil fuel producing countries when their revenues plummet as a result of a climate agreement.

Discussions on Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Land Degradation (REDD-plus) hit some bumps in Tianjin. The jury is still out as to whether this issue will be ripe for a stand-alone "decision" in Mexico.

The negotiations on market mechanisms are difficult, as before, but pushed along due to great interest, particularly on the part of the EU. Many of the developing countries in the ALBA group, which includes Venezuela, Bolivia, and Cuba continue to try to block this discussion. It is a difficult moment for carbon markets: existing ones,  such as the EU's, are fizzling due to an oversupply of credits caused by the recession; expected new ones, such as in Australia, have failed to materialise. Moreover, they face deep uncertainty about what will happen after the end in 2012 of the first period of Kyoto Protocol emissions reduction commitments, on which many of them rely.

On a positive note, the talks on agriculture advanced some more and, while a significant stand-alone agreement may yet be out of reach, analysts are hopeful that the issue could become the subject of a process that would advance expertise, options, and eventually results - and even demonstrate that the same could be accomplished in other sectors.

Bumpy road ahead?

While a string of issue-specific decisions might be within reach at Cancun, Washington has already said it would only agree to anything if the biggest developing countries consent to make their mitigation actions subject to monitoring, review, and external verification. In exchange for clarity on developing country actions to mitigate climate change, the US would, in principle, support a comprehensive agreement that includes a new technology development and transfer mechanism, reduction of their own emissions and climate finance.

The BASIC countries, meanwhile, say that the comprehensive offer on the table falls far short of what is needed in terms of financial and technological support from the developed world. Moreover, they say, rich countries have not lived up to past promises. The BASIC countries argue that developed countries should show leadership in reducing emissions and delivering support.

Finally, with the potential loss of industrial competitiveness resulting from mitigation efforts weighing heavily on politicians' minds in the United States and some European countries, support has grown for "border adjustments" - effectively tariffs - on imports from countries such as China and India that do not agree to binding emissions caps. In Tianjin, the BASIC pushed again for the introduction of a text to "reject the use of unilateral protectionist measures" by developed countries. Jairam Ramesh, India's minister of environment and forests, argued that unilaterally slapping tariffs on exports from developing countries for perceived failures of climate policy would violate the equity considerations expressed in the UNFCCC's principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities."

Observer policy being revised for Cancun

Following the Copenhagen summit, where the Danish government was criticised for mishandling the vast numbers of accredited observers that tried to attend the talks, the UNFCCC has moved to put limits on the numbers of civil society participants.

Historically, a colourful range of representatives of NGOs, businesses, international organisations, academics, environmental advocates, youth organisations, and others have attended UN climate conferences.

The Mexican government has planned for the Cancun summit to be split between two separate buildings, with observers' activities taking place a bus ride away from the intergovernmental negotiations.

Many civil society groups have told the UNFCCC secretariat that the climate talks would suffer from the absence of the knowledge, experience, and other support that observer organisations have traditionally provided.

ICTSD reporting; "China Calls U.S. A Pig In The Mirror on Climate Change," REUTERS, 9 October 2010; "Reject protectionism in climate talks: Jairam Ramesh," THE HINDU, 11 October 2010; "To counter West, China and India reach out to small island-States," THE HINDU, 12 October 2010.

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