Plus ca change? Well, maybe not

We’re at the end of the third day of COP21, and, after a brief interlude when 150 heads of state and government graced the world stage here in Paris, the climate community is getting back to the business of crafting a global treaty.

As I noted in my previous post, the French hosts have left nothing to chance. Every effort that could have been made, has been. But some obstacles are just too… human for even the most meticulous organiser to overcome.

We got through two and a half days of relative harmony, a constructive atmosphere and inspiring words from the political leaders, but as soon a teachers’ backs were turned, the in-fighting resumed.

This evening I came across two articles reflecting this sudden return to squabbling: firstly, India’s Business Standard reported that the US wants developing countries to pick up a large chunk of the burden of financial contributions to help adapt to the effects of climate change, in contravention of the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR).

Shortly afterwards, I saw a headline from the Guardian, published earlier today, which reported Indian negotiators’ accusations that the OECD is overstating the amount of climate aid that the developed world has mobilised to help poorer nations.

Apart from being a depressing return to the sort of finger-pointing that has characterised this process for many years, these two headlines also highlight the pivot in the key relationships that dominate the UNFCCC process.

In essence, India has taken over from China as the main protagonist in these talks. In the lead-up to COP21, it was India that was reminding the world that an agreement needs to be based on CBDR, it was India telling us that it wanted to see more money committed from developed nations.

China, meanwhile, is quietly going about the business of turning its emissions trajectory around. We’ve read headlines all year long about unprecedented declines in Chinese coal consumption, about the US-China bilateral agreement on climate change, and about the ambitious “all of the above” approach to low-carbon energy that the country is taking.

And this is what I think is the real story.

This change in the key relationships was crystallised in a headline that I found frankly astonishing: Reuters reported this afternoon that China will cut its power sector emissions by 180 million tonnes by 2020.

That’s a decrease, not a big one by any means, but it’s an absolute reduction (the article doesn’t give a baseline year). Bear in mind that right up to COP21, China’s been saying it aims to peak its emissions no later than 2030, and reduce thereafter. Now it’s saying it can start reducing them a decade earlier. (And yes, I realise this is only the power sector they’re talking about, but electricity emissions are a huge chunk of the total.)

Suddenly it doesn’t surprise me that India’s gone on the offensive: they must be feeling pretty chilly out there on their own now that China has hunkered down and started to do the hard yards of mitigation. I haven’t read quite as much CBRD talk from China this year as I have done before, either. So India is pretty much having to wave that flag on its own.

So, yes. Some things are once again depressingly familiar at COP – the finger-pointing, the occasional intransigence. But other things are changing, moving, and it may be that we’re seeing the start of a real effort on the part of the world’s largest emitter to show the way forward.

 


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