My colleague Antto Vihma, a researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, published today a provocative briefing paper, entitled “Elephant in the Room: The New G77 and China Dynamics in Climate Talks,” on the developing country bloc in climate diplomacy.

In the paper, Antto paints a depressing picture of the coalitional dynamics in the global South. Documenting the history of the G77 bargaining bloc, he argues that developing countries’ interests regarding climate change are diverging:

1) The rapidly industrializing countries, especially China and India, are primarily interested in avoiding binding commitments and other sovereignty violations.

2) The oil exporters prefer no deal to any deal.

3) A number of radical countries, such as Bolivia and Venezuela, reject anything that the North proposes. This is convenient for the other power players that oppose binding commitments.

4) Small island states promote aggressive mitigation policy as a matter of survival.

Based on his analysis, Antto has very little faith in the effectiveness of leadership:

“Would more ambitious short term commitments by the North, or bigger and more precise figures in financing, have made a crucial difference to China? Very unlikely. Throughout the history of climate change negotiations China—as well as India—has carefully avoided international norms that might constrain its behaviour.”

I would agree with this statement, as applied to the possibility that China would suddenly reverse course and begin to aggressively reduce emissions. However, I am not sure that this must be the case in the long run.

Imagine (dream) for a while that the European Union and the United States, backed by other industrialized countries, agree on relatively ambitious emissions reductions. While this itself may not impress the Chinese government, it could trigger other dynamics in Europe and the United States that force China to rethink its position:

1) If American manufacturers no longer believe that emissions reductions can be avoided, their next best strategy is to push aggressively for carbon tariffs unless China reciprocates by reducing emissions.

2) One reason why Europeans have been hesitant to play hardball with China has been that they have not had any allies. But an understanding with the United States could change all this.

3) China’s main argument against mitigation has been US obstructionism. The reputational cost of not doing anything would go through the roof.

In addition to these threats, a transatlantic agreement on climate policy would surely also facilitate climate finance.

Alas, it seems unlikely that we’ll see anytime soon whether my optimistic scenario is plausible or not. But if I’m right, then the way forward goes through Washington, DC.

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