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All's fair in the climate blame game

Richard Black | 11:09 UK time, Friday, 6 November 2009

At the UN climate negotiations in Barcelona.

Delegate at the Barcelona climate talksIt's a story that's been coming for the last few months; now that it's being written, the first cards of the blame game are being played.

Remember the UN climate conference in Bali two years ago, and the road that stretched from there to Copenhagen?

The last-night exhaustion and the tears, the drama of the US being asked to step aside if it wouldn't lead? The glittering promise held out by ministers of a new deal this December - a treaty that would legally bind most countries to do something about curbing their carbon emissions, and fund those about to be beset by effects of climate change?

As October's preparatory conference in Bangkok ended, a complete treaty by the end of the year was already being dismissed in some quarters - even by insiders - as a step too far, given the fundamental divisions that had endured even as governments sought to agree their common vision for the treaty.

There might now only be a framework of an agreement, it was said - but it would have some firm numbers in it, and it would be legally binding.

In the last two weeks, this has unravelled a step further, with politicians and negotiators and officials - and now the UK's Climate Secretary Ed Miliband - acknowledging that achieving anything legally binding is probably too big an ask.

For the developing countries, it's obvious who to blame: the US and the EU.

The US should commit to steep carbon cuts, as envisaged in the Bali Action Plan, they say; the EU should press harder and lean more heavily on its allies in Washington DC.

For those beleaguered Western governments, one answer is to point the finger back at developing countries.

China should pledge more impressive curbs than it has so far, US lead negotiator Todd Stern told a Congressional committee on Wednesday - a notion echoed by Mr Miliband on Thursday.

Developing countries are demanding levels of financial compensation - such as 1% of the industrialised world's GDP - that they know to be unrealistic, said officials here.

Campaign groups, too, are pointing the finger at the US, which they accuse of caving in to corporate lobbying.

Russia and Canada are accused in some circles of less than full commitment to the process - partly from a desire to expand exploitation of oil and gas reserves in places that are now made inaccessible by ice or made unaffordable by the harsh economics of their extraction.

There have been harsh words for Saudi Arabia. The Tcktcktck activist coalition accused the Gulf state of putting its oil interests before the needs of the poor countries with which it's allied in the G77/China bloc, obstructing parts of the negotiations that it found inconvenient.

Wednesday saw a series of events mounted in various developing country capitals to raise the issue, and on Thursday the Saudi delegation was handed a letter outside the talks here saying that "the position of the Saudi Arabian government in the negotiations risks preventing the necessary deal from being made".

Saudi Arabia protest

For some of the youth caucus, the issue is simple, with the "school report card" they prepared giving pass marks to every bloc from the developing world and failing every industrialised country.

The African countries that staged a walkout on Tuesday would probably concur.

Simplistic? Certainly, according to other developing country delegates who - off the record, of course - found the African action unconstructive - an episode of what Australians term "spitting the dummy".

To some extent, all the blaming and shaming is a political game - another part of the diplomatic manoeuvring which governments use to secure not just a deal they say they need, but the variant of the deal that works best for them.

Does anybody in the Obama administration really expect China to pledge cuts in greenhouse gas emissions when the US has put no numbers on the table at all for 2020?

Does the G77/China bloc really expect the Obama administration to put firm numbers on the table when it only has as much power compared to the Senate as the US political system allows?

There is also a degree of back-covering - getting a bit of retaliation in first, as critics sharpen their knives in the bloody abattoir of national parliamentary politics.

Who is really to blame? Everybody will have their own list; so can guidance be sought in this affair's guiding treatise, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change?

Perhaps it's worth noting one paragraph...

"The global nature of climate change calls for the widest possible co-operation by all countries and their participation in an effective and appropriate international response, in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities and their social and economic conditions."

...which surely implies that it's up to all parties to achieve the treaty they say they want.

Looks like it's not going to be this year, though... perhaps next?

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