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Climate: Fractures in the lobby?

Richard Black
Former environment correspondent

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image captionVenezuela: oil-producing, but ultra-demanding on climate targets - a "petro-state of Mother Earth"?

One of the oddest things about the UN climate process is the way it virtually forces countries with diametrically opposed interests to huddle close and pretend to be friends.

EU nations, most of which officially want to press ahead with tying up a binding new global agreement, tend through reasons of history and expediency to stay close by the US, which does not.

But nowhere is the issue more starkly illustrated than in the G77/China bloc of developing countries, which - despite its name - now encompasses 131 countries.

I've written before about the wide range of development levels within the bloc.

But even more pertinent is the huge variation in their national interests, between those such as low-lying small islands that may literally cease to exist as nations as the sea level rises, and the oil-producing states of the Persian Gulf and Opec for whom the priority is to keep the oil and gas flowing.

Breaking ranks is a tough thing to do, because the G77/China bloc gives small countries a powerful presence and a powerful voice in talks in all sorts, notably trade.

Without strength in numbers, the argument goes, the Togos and Thailands and Trinidads of this world will be picked upon and bullied rotten by the exploiters of the Western world.

Some countries have nevertheless put their heads above the parapet and spoken out against the more powerful nations, including the Gulf lobby, that wield power within the bloc.

Oil in the wheels

Earlier this week, an e-mail dropped into my lap from Saudi Arabia's chief climate negotiator Mohammed Al-Sabban, a veteran of the process with a reputation for being a tough operator.

He was forwarding a message from Venezuela's chief climate negotiator Claudia Salerno, a glamorous diplomat whose most theatrical moment came on the last morning of the Copenhagen summit when she held up what appeared to be a bloody hand, saying she had cut it in protest against the Copenhagen Accord, which she called a "coup d'etat against the United Nations".

Dr Salerno's e-mail was alerting Mr Al-Sabban and others to an article on a Maldives news website, Minivan News, in which Maldives' deputy environment minister Mohamed Shareef is quoted as saying explicitly that "Saudi Arabia and Opec countries are blocking [the negotiations]".

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image captionSaudi Arabia has long demanded compensation for its "lost" oil revenue

In her e-mail, she describes the comment as "very surprising".

Mr Al-Sabban goes further.

"It is not unusual that some developed countries are abusing their relationship with small developing countries through bilateral 'give and take' to divide the G-77/China," he writes - a reference, in this case, to the UK.

"This has been their practice for long time, and they have never succeeded."

The Maldives is one of the small island states that has established close relations with developed nations - with President Nasheed speaking of the need for all countries, developed and developing, to curb their emissions.

Last year, he told BBC News that continuing to equate the need to develop with the right to emit carbon dioxide was "quite silly".

With support from the UK and others, the Maldives is embarking on a plan to become carbon neutral by 2020.

Saudi Arabia, by contrast, has long demanded compensation for "non-use" of fossil fuels. It argues that if a global climate deal goes through, it will not be able to sell some of the oil and gas in its possession - and should be compensated through "special response measures".

In the Maldives article, Dr Shareef goes on to say that he does not "believe for one minute that Saudi Arabia's concerns are genuine".

Concerns that are not genuine, he says, should be "thrown out" from the talks.

Mr Al-Sabban's response is intriguing.

"I am not worried about this comment, and whether the concerns of Saudi Arabia and other Opec countries with regards to the adverse impact of response measure is genuine.

"Saudi Arabia and other Opec countries will continue defending their national interests as everyone else is doing, and nothing will stop us from doing so."

Note the use of the term "national interests" - not "interests of the G77/China bloc", or even "interests of the developing world".

Bloc parties

This e-mail exchange illustrates a couple of important yet if under-reported issues undermining the UN negotiations.

Groups such as the G77/China are coalitions - sometimes, as here, encompassing a plethora of competing interests.

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image captionMaldives' President Nasheed is trying to promote the interests of "climate-vulnerable" countries

The Maldives feels it has much in common with "progressive" countries, including many from Europe as well as Costa Rica, New Zealand, and Colombia - and indeed talks to them through the Cartagena Dialogue process in an attempt to find ways forward.

But it can receive criticism from other developing countries when it does so.

Saudi Arabia actually has a lot of common ground with countries such as Russia and Canada - even the US, even China - that do not want to see swift progress towards a new treaty.

Yet they sit, officially, in different camps.

Officially, China and the US find themselves at loggerheads over the issue of monitoring and verifying emission cuts - but in another sense, the issue works for both of them, enabling each to blame the other for lack of progress.

Dr Salerno does not in this exchange elucidate Venezuelan concerns, but they are on public display; to keep the Earth's average temperature rise since pre-industrial terms below 1C, while continuing to export all the oil it can.

Bolivia, which regularly laments the problems climate change is bringing to poor indigenous communities, is also an oil producer; one observer wryly describes both as "petro-states of Mother Earth".

And whether the Saudi concerns over special response measures are genuine or not, the UN negotiations have no mechanism for throwing out issues that are put in spuriously, merely to disrupt and delay.

The latest set of talks, in Bonn last month, ground to a sticky halt.

Many parties officially blame the gulf between rich and poor nations.

But this little episode shows clearly that there are far more factors than that shovelling jam in the works.