UN Talks Seeking Climate Rulebook Reflect U.S.-China Tension

By | December 14, 2018

China accused some of the richest nations in the world of “backsliding” on pledges to clean up pollution and provide $100 billion a year in climate-related aid by 2020.

The comments at a United Nations conference on global warming in Poland spearheaded a push by a group of the 49 Least Developed Countries for clarity on when those promises will be fulfilled. It indicated deepening tensions as the talks that are due to conclude in the industrial city of Katowice on Friday.

“Some delegations we are seeing backsliding,” Xie Zhenhua, China’s lead envoy to the talks in Katowice, said at a briefing on Thursday afternoon. “There are still quite a number of developed countries who did not start” providing financial and technological support that they had pledged in the Paris Agreement three years ago. “We cannot accept any backsliding.”

The remarks emphasized the divide on environmental issues between China and the U.S., which had worked together to seal the landmark deal in Paris in 2015. Since then, President Donald Trump vowed to pull out of the deal and worked to boost use of coal, the most polluting fossil fuel.

Envoys from almost 200 nations have been working on the rules to implement the Paris deal and have run into friction on a number of issues that are always contentious in the talks:

Industrial nations remain about $30 billion short of their pledge to ramp-up climate-related aid to $100 billion a year by 2020. Developing nations are resisting measures that would ensure transparency in the way greenhouse gas emissions cuts are measured, reported and verified. They want different rules to apply to rich and poor nations, reflecting their varying capabilities. Debate over a new UN Sustainable Development Mechanism was holding up the promise of expanding the world’s network of cap-and-trade markets covering carbon emissions. Nations most vulnerable to climate change want more provisions for compensating them for “loss and damage” related to more violent weather expected along with rising temperatures.

Issues like that derailed the meeting in Copenhagen in 2009. After that, then-President Barack Obama worked closely with Chinese leaders on a voluntary approach toward cutting emissions, which culminated with the Paris deal. Now that Trump has set a different tone, the old friction points at the talks have become more prominent.

“The big difference is that before you had this diplomatic machinery that had been working on the underpinnings for two years, and you had an understanding between the U.S. and China,” said Alden Meyer, who has been attending the talks for more than two decades for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Washington-based advocacy group. “And now, we don’t have the U.S. and China working at that same deep level.”

The LDC group and China were joined by the 40-nation Alliance of Small Island States in calling for a “strengthening global response” to climate change including a measure that “scale up finance.”

Business leaders attending the talks expressed concern the Katowice Rulebook, which is supposed to emerge from these talks, will be too vague to serve as a guide for how they should cut their own emissions.

“We do need the rulebook because that will reduce the risk that we have and increase the number of regions where we can invest in,” said Carlos Salle, an official following the talks for Iberdrola SA, Spain’s largest utility.

Miner View

Poland, which as host of the meeting has a heavy hand in crafting the outcome, held the talks in a region known for its coal mines to emphasize the importance of that fuel to the global economy. Miners attending the talks objected to the overall drift of the UN effort, which would quickly limit the fuel they produce.

“What is being forced on us is the idea that unless we get rid of coal yesterday, the planet will cease to exist tomorrow — it’s not true,” Jaroslaw Grzesik, deputy head of the mining arm of Poland’s Solidarnosc union, said at the talks on Thursday.

For his part, Xie from China said he’s “disappointed in the U.S. withdrawing from the Paris Agreement.” He rejected the notion that the dispute will hold up the talks saying developing countries “have been very flexible and constructive” at the meeting.

“We will get a rulebook because there are countries who are not ready to leave without it,” said David Levai, head of climate governance at IDDRI, a French research group advising on sustainability. “The question is how strong this rulebook will be.”

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