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Developing nations hold the key to Copenhagen climate agreement

Rich nations still hold some bargaining chips, but many negotiators and observers say key decisions by poor and emerging nations will make or break any deal.

December 16, 2009|By Jim Tankersley
  • A speaker discusses climate change at the Copenhagen summit. U.S. negotiators spoke optimistically about reaching a deal.
A speaker discusses climate change at the Copenhagen summit. U.S. negotiators… (Kay Nietfeld / European…)

Reporting from Copenhagen — The world's poorest and fastest-growing developing nations appear, increasingly, to hold the fate of a new climate agreement in their hands. The choice they face is, deal or no deal?

As the Copenhagen climate summit barreled into its penultimate phase Tuesday, wealthy countries ramped up pressure on emerging economies China and India, as well as African and island nations, to compromise and drop near-daily procedural tactics and protests that have slowed the negotiations.

Rich nations still hold some bargaining chips, chiefly how much money they're willing to commit to help developing countries adapt to climate change and shift their energy sources over the long term.

A collapse in negotiations would trigger a blame game in which developing nations brand the United States and the West in general as the villains. Still, many negotiators and observers here say most of the key decisions that will seal or scuttle an agreement rest with poor and emerging nations.

China and India, whose booming economies are projected to account for much of the world's emissions growth in coming decades, must decide whether they can accept the two conditions the U.S. calls fundamental to an agreement: that all nations make their carbon dioxide emissions reduction pledges clear and that they allow the world to verify that the pledges in fact are met.

Africans and island nations, for their part, must choose whether to accept greenhouse gas reductions for the developed world that are far weaker than the poor countries would like; scientists warn that the reductions proposed by wealthy nations might not be enough to spare the world's poorest nations from flood, famine and other devastating effects of climate change.

Inside the Bella Center, the venue for the negotiations, summit attendees with deep ties to the developing world diverged sharply on whether those nations would ultimately strike an agreement or walk away.

"Only a fool will tell you definitely they know what China's midnight position will be," said Peter Goldmark, who directs the climate and air program for the Environmental Defense Fund, a group that works closely with China.

Goldmark thinks China will ultimately hold its line and reject international emissions-pledge monitoring in any form, a move U.S. officials insist would kill hopes for a deal. Other groups say China, the world's largest emitter, does not want to risk blame if the talks fall through.

"They really want a deal," Keya Chatterjee, director of the U.S. climate change program for the World Wildlife Fund, said of the Chinese. "They really care what the world thinks of them."

American negotiators sided with the optimists Tuesday. "I actually think we're going to get there with China," Todd Stern, the U.S. special climate envoy, told reporters. "But you know, I don't know for sure yet."

Leaders of the Copenhagen negotiations are aiming for a framework agreement, including costs and emissions reduction commitments, that would pave the way for a new international global warming treaty to be signed later, probably next year. If major emitters don't reach agreement in Copenhagen, observers say, international talks could be set back indefinitely, along with the Obama administration's climate bill in Congress.

Some environmental groups say the United States and its allies have given developing nations ample reason to shoot down an accord, by proposing emission cuts too light to avert the worst effects of warming; by failing to provide fiscal details of a long-term climate aid package to the developing world; and, in the case of Europe and many other economic powers, by not moving aggressively to extend the Kyoto Protocol, which sets emissions reduction targets with a process that gives developing nations a strong voice. (The U.S. never ratified the Kyoto treaty, which a Copenhagen pact would replace.)

Developed nations "are trying to bully around the poorest countries in the world, who will be most impacted by climate change," said Erich Pica, president of the environmental group Friends of the Earth.

Pica's group and others also criticized wealthy countries for what they called a pressure campaign to bring developing nations on board, including President Obama's calls Monday to the prime ministers of Ethiopia and Bangladesh to enlist their help in the climate negotiations.

One of the sharpest critiques came from Desmond Tutu, the South African archbishop and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who said Tuesday in a letter to African heads of state that the emission cuts on the table would "condemn Africa to incineration and no modern development."

It appears unlikely, though, that wealthy nations will boost their carbon emission commitments significantly.

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