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New York Climate Summit Fails to Bridge Rich-Poor Divide

Obama: U.S. and China “Have a Special Responsibility to Lead"

India reiterated its need to develop, China listed the steps it was taking and the United States repeated that all countries should control greenhouse-gas emissions.

Despite notable advances in many areas, the special climate summit convened by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Tuesday failed to bridge the gap between rich and poor nations.

“Just as the fossil-fuel led model of industrialization that began in the West a couple of centuries ago is seen [as] responsible for the growing human impact on the climate, the other stark fact is that poverty remains a major polluter,” India’s environment minister Prakash Javadekar told the informal summit.

“Therefore, this talk about changed realities can only be misleading and motivated.”

The minister was referring to remarks made by leaders of many industrialized countries—including U.S. president Barack Obama—that emerging economies like China and India should commit to tighter control on emissions in a global treaty supposed to be ready by the end of next year. Though Obama mentioned only China by name, his tenor was clear. So was Javadekar’s response.

Rich nations want all countries, especially emerging economies, to take on legally binding emission-control pledges in the treaty, which is being negotiated under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Developing countries—especially India—remain steadfast in their opposition, on the grounds that such a move would be iniquitous.

Demands for finance and technology support have been major stumbling blocks in UNFCCC negotiations, with rich countries failing to adequately deliver even on the few promises they have made. China, India, Brazil and South Africa have led the demand for better results.

Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli stayed away from this issue in his summit speech, however, talking only about what China has already done to tackle climate change.

Promising that “China will make more effort to tackle climate change out of our own will,” Zhang pointed out that “China has done remarkable work by publishing its National Climate Change Program before this summit.”

The Vice Premier emphasized three targets: reduce carbon-emission intensity (China promised in 2009 to cut emissions per unit of GDP by 40-45% by 2020); increase non-fossil fuel ratio and forest storage; and try to achieve peak carbon emissions as soon as possible.

Zhang also said China would provide $6 million to the UN Secretary General to support South-South cooperation on tackling climate change.

India’s representative said his country too had taken major steps to tackle climate change: a doubling of the clean-energy tax on coal; over $15 million allocated to a national adaptation fund; $80 million for setting up mega solar projects; $16 million for the development of solar parks on canal banks; and more. As for future actions, India has also decided to double the installed wind-energy capacity over the next five years, increase installed solar capacity to over 20,000 megawatts by 2020, and use energy efficiency to save 10,000 megawatts by 2020.

The Chinese and Indian speeches came after the U.S. President had said, “No nation can meet this global threat alone… Nobody gets a pass.”

Obama too listed domestic efforts to tackle climate change, at the same time pointing out the ravages caused by extreme weather events in the country. “The climate is changing faster than our ability to address it,” he said. “The alarm bells keep ringing.”

Obama said big countries like the United States and China “have a special responsibility to lead” on how to tackle climate change. “We will do our part,” he said. But while right-wing organizations said the president had gone too far in his speech, some NGOs, including Oxfam and Greenpeace, felt he had not gone far enough.

The Road to Paris

All in all, there was little indication that the negotiations logjam would be broken, and there is little time. A draft of the treaty—expected to be signed at the end of 2015 at the UN summit in Paris—is supposed to be ready for discussion at the next global climate meeting in Lima this December.

Ban took an optimistic tone at the end of the summit, however, pointing to a raft of pledges—such as a cross-sector promise to mobilize $200 billion for low-carbon development—as evidence of success. “I asked for bold announcements from governments, business, finance, and civil society in five key areas,” he said at the closing session. “The summit delivered.”

Not everyone took as rosy a view. News of a global alliance to promote climate-smart agriculture came under prompt attack from some NGOs, who fear the takeover of this initiative by firms manufacturing genetically modified seeds. Most NGOs were also skeptical about a commitment made by oil firms—for long the biggest deniers of climate change—to identify and reduce methane emissions by 2020.