Copenhagen's Class Divisions

Developing countries at the Climate Change Summit want to be heard—and compensated.

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It isn’t often that Russians climb in bed with Rwandans. Yet, as the much-hyped United Nations climate summit convenes in Copenhagen this week, 56 world newspapers united against the growing threat of catastrophic climate change. An editorial urging global action to deflect the worst effects of fossil fuel dependence appeared in major news outlets, including ones in Moscow and Kigali—and in 10 other newspapers published from the African continent. “This should not be a fight between the rich world and the poor world, or between east and west,” the text, originally drafted by the Guardian UK, read. “Climate change affects everyone, and must be solved by everyone.”

The pre-Copenhagen coordination is significant for several reasons. For months, the dialogue on climate policy has largely focused on the actions of China and of the United States—powerful and dynamic economies that are the two largest global polluters. Their electricity production, transportation and manufacturing industries account for the lion’s share of world pollution—with populous India not far behind. But these actions have grave consequences for smaller countries. Water wars between Burkina Faso and Ghana, or Pakistan and India, food shortages in Niger or oil shocks in American cities are all destabilizing to the global economy and political order. As the stakes mount and the conversation deepens, a new alliance among nations from the global south is asserting a voice in the debate.

The primary instigator of this new diplomatic dynamic is the African Union. The federation of 51 African states, formed in 2002, along with the G77—representing 130 developing countries—has made a strong push for financial support as it tries to participate in the new, green world order. Chief among its requests, developed in Accra in 2008 and hammered out at a recent AU conference on the environment in Addis Ababa, is the creation of a climate fund to support the greening of emerging markets, via subsidies for alternative energy production, reforestation, drought and flood-preparedness infrastructure, and technology transfer. The precise amount of funding—rumored to be between $50 and $70 billion over several years—has not been determined, but “it carries a lot of weight that the AU is saying something,” says Mwiza Munthale, director of public outreach for TransAfrica Forum. “You’re trying to get the attention of the most powerful countries of the world that do not always look out for the developing world.”

The Obama administration’s final position on American emissions reduction targets is not yet known, though a 17 percent cut (below 2005 levels, by 2020) has been its working number. The White House has also suggested that developed nations provide some $10 billion annually by 2012 to help the global south adapt to climate change—but the G77 and AU, along with China, India, Brazil and South Africa, are pushing for more action on both fronts. “We cannot agree to [halving emissions by 2050] because it implies that ... the remaining (cuts) must be done by developing countries,” said Alf Willis, chief climate negotiator for South Africa. African states boycotted a preliminary diplomatic conference in Barcelona in November based on a similar complaint. And the same bloc of nations is insisting that climate aid be a central part of any deal in Copenhagen. “These are the new shifts in global decisionmaking,” says Emira Woods, co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. “Having one common platform has strengthened the hand of the region.”

These plausible, if worst-case, scenarios demonstrate a marked difference in preparedness between the richest and the poorest countries of the world. In the last decade, advanced democracies—the type that perch atop the U.N.’s annual development rankings—have braced for climate change. The Netherlands has pioneered floating houses; the British government plans to spend $500 million on a flood defense system for the Thames River; and the United States, despite its reputation as a foot-dragger on green issues, has invested, via the February economic stimulus package, more money in alternative fuel production and energy-saving infrastructure than ever before. And this week, Environmental Protection Agency head Lisa Jackson formally announced that carbon dioxide will be classified as a dangerous pollutant, a move that could result in sweeping new regulatory authority for the EPA.

Poor nations, however, still shoulder the biggest risks. “Africa has not contributed significantly to global warming, and yet Africa is paying the highest price,” says Woods. “If you are an African country, you have much more at stake than a rich country,” adds Saleemul Huq, head of climate change at the British International Institute for Environment and Development. “Poor people in particular depend on natural resources for their livelihoods,” said Julia Martin-Lefevre, president of the World Conservation Union, after a meeting with the African Development Bank this fall. “Managing and conserving these resources in a sustainable way can contribute to building resilience against the effects of climate change.”

Brazil has been a good example of leadership in this new development paradigm. Despite being populous and poor, conservation and reforestation of the Amazon rainforest has long been part of the national conversation on the environment, and ethanol production from its sugar cane reserves could be a future source of trade revenue. Much of its success, however, has come as a result of public will. In a recent HSBC-sponsored poll, some 90 percent of Brazilians favored their government committing to “meet or significantly exceed” a 50–80 percent reduction in emissions by 2050. In the United States and in many less developed countries, this kind of awareness is still lacking.

Another factor in the preparedness gap comes from the vastly different economic conditions between the relevant groups. Many developing nations, including parts of rural China and India, are not yet fully electrified, and heavy manufacturing is a less significant factor in their carbon footprints. The introduction of an economy-wide “cap and trade” system of curbing emissions, as has been proposed in the U.S. Congress, is less realistic in such emerging markets.

President Barack Obama, who will attend the Copenhagen summit next week, has sought to partner with smaller states and nontraditional powers on the issue of climate change. Still, when it comes to forging the kind of global treaty necessary to stave off the worst effects of global warming, “the divide between developed and developing countries … is still alive and well,” said Todd Stern, chief climate negotiator for the United States, when testifying before Congress last month.

The funding plan on the table at Copenhagen is a potential game changer: Such a fund “will help countries leapfrog, from importing essential green technology, to helping to promote green jobs, to a broader swath of issues that will not only help mitigate the impacts of climate change, but help African and other countries in the global south transition to a new green economy,” says Woods. What’s more, this could be a mutually beneficial arrangement, says Naveen Nayak, director of global warming for the League of Conservation Voters. “A lot of the developed nations see it as not only important to a final deal but an opportunity to create the markets that they are trying to attract as they develop green technology. It’s very central to the whole conversation.”

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