A brave face, but climate talks look doomed

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 March, 2011, 12:00am

The top UN climate body took a pessimistic tone in its review of the international talks in Cancun, Mexico, saying the progress achieved there was far from enough.

Although the vaguely worded agreement that nearly 200 countries managed to reach at the end of an overnight negotiating session in December is 'the most ambitious global effort to date', the pledged emission reduction targets 'are inadequate in the longer term to keep the world under the agreed maximum global temperature rise of two degrees', the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change said on its website.

Glaring differences remain, as none of the major parties appears willing to make key concessions first, mostly on substantial steps to cut carbon emissions, at the possible expense of their own economies.

The disheartening assessment comes as talks reach a critical juncture this year after a disastrous failure akin to the Copenhagen debacle in 2009 was barely avoided at Cancun.

Major players in the talks such as China and several other large developing nations have upped the ante by urging that a global deal on tackling climate change be cut in Durban, South Africa, at the end of the year.

Is it a realistic expectation? Mainland negotiators are pessimistic.

They have said privately that they don't think the Cancun meeting was much of a success because virtually no major progress was achieved on the issues separating the developing nations from the developed ones.

'But the talks will have to proceed despite setbacks and the lack of substantial progress,' one negotiator said. 'The fight is doomed to be a long and arduous one.'

Many analysts believe it is simply negotiating rhetoric for Beijing to put on a brave face against increasingly gloomy prospects.

By saying China is hopeful of a meaningful global deal this year, Beijing apparently wants to repair its international image after surprisingly reconciling with the US in Cancun and its reluctance to take the lead in the developing bloc.

Dissatisfaction towards China has been simmering among its traditional allies in Africa and the least developed nations since Copenhagen. Many poor nations have been vocal about China's inaction in Cancun, with some accusing it of not doing enough and sometimes even blocking efforts towards reaching a deal.

Their argument is simple. The fact that China, the world's largest carbon polluter, joined hands with the US in Cancun is telling enough. China and the US jointly produce over 40 per cent of the world's total emissions, but they have rejected mitigation commitments under the Kyoto Protocol, which expires next year.

Even some mainland negotiators and climate experts find Beijing's stance confusing: it went from being somewhat obtrusive in defiance of the US-led developed nations in Copenhagen to taking a deliberate low profile in Cancun.

A senior official close to the UN talks says it is obvious the top mainland leadership instructed the change in tactics following the diplomatic fallout from Copenhagen.

While China earned a name among the bloc of poor nations by engaging in the blame game with the US in Copenhagen, it has been widely portrayed by the Western media as the culprit for the embarrassing failure of one of the highest-level UN gatherings in recent years.

Premier Wen Jiabao and his negotiating team were fiercely criticised at home after senior officials from the US administration and other key players in world politics expressed strong dismay at China's posturing and unusual show of defiance in Copenhagen, according to mainland reporters and officials.

Mainland negotiators were specifically required to avoid clashes and confrontations with the Americans at the Cancun talks to 'create a friendly political atmosphere for President Hu Jintao's state visit to the US in January', said the official who was closely involved in the talks.

That's why China adopted the low-key approach in Cancun.

The official said the main parties remained too for apart. 'In short, [China] is unlikely to see a breakthrough in Durban, South Africa, this year or even South Korea in 2012.'

Many analysts predict that as long as China's primary focus remains on economic development, it will have little to offer in South Africa.