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Pass the climate parcel

By Tim Wilson - posted Monday, 28 September 2009

International negotiations are like a game of political pass the parcel and every government is desperate to ensure they're not holding up negotiations when the music stops.

Last July India was left holding the parcel of negotiating text for the World Trade Organisation's Doha talks when the music stopped, and was internationally condemned for the failed negotiations.

At last week's UN Climate Change Summit in New York, the grand rhetoric from political leaders shows they are seeking to make sure the music keeps playing when they are in the spotlight.


Kevin Rudd is proposing a "grand bargain", Chinese President Hu Jintao has proposed per capita emissions cuts and Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh is celebrating proposed domestic legislation for emissions targets. Their statements aren't about securing agreement but laying the foundations of blame for when the December Copenhagen meeting collapses in attempting to replace the failed Kyoto Protocol.

The New York meeting exposes how wide the fracture lines are.

Earlier this year the US House of Representatives passed a bill for an emissions trading scheme. But the bill's passage through the Senate was predicated on an agreement in Copenhagen that will see developing countries reduce their emissions.

Under the negotiating principle of common but differentiated responsibilities a cut to emissions doesn't have to be equivalent to that of the US, but it certainly needs to be more than curbing emissions growth until 2020, as China proposes.

At the summit, Hu restated China's position that climate change "is an environmental issue but also, and more importantly, a development issue". The only development was a commitment to "cut carbon dioxide emission per unit of GDP". But China's chief climate change negotiator, Yu Qingtai, has consistently argued "the difference in per capita emissions between China and the developed nations is still huge" and China's commitment to combat climate change is tempered by pride that "more and more ... countrymen can afford a car and go to work in a car".

Similarly the Indian government has previously argued that they are committed to "per capita emissions of greenhouse gases not exceeding those of the developed countries".


The UN's chief climate change bureaucrat, Yvo de Boer, may be hailing these statements as a significant achievement, but without developing country commitments to emissions cuts, American officials cannot negotiate a politically palatable agreement for approval by the US Senate.

Politically China and India have been smart in passing the parcel to US President Barack Obama while he's stymied because his Congress is thrashing out healthcare reform.

And developing countries are not alone in playing climate politics.

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First published in The Australian on September 24, 2009.

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About the Author

Tim Wilson is the federal Liberal member for Goldstein and a former human rights commissioner.

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