China has failed to revive the stale North-South conflict at Cop26

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Beijing’s efforts to weaponise developed countries’ legacy of carbon emissions are undone by its own toxic history of polluting

China has failed to revive the stale North-South conflict at Cop26

In one corner are the guilty: the rich emitters of the industrial West that account for the vast majority of the 2,500 gigatonnes of atmospheric carbon accumulated since the mid-19th Century.  

In the other corner are the victims: developing countries that were passive bystanders (or colonies) while the North gobbled up 87pc of the allowable carbon budget, and are now expected both to forgo catch-up growth as well as sharing the full costs of the clean-up. 

That was the toxic dichotomy written into the text of the early Cop meetings in the 1990s and that framed the visceral confrontation at Copenhagen in 2009, when the industrialisation of rising Asia was already stretching the narrative to its limits.

Chinese officials in Glasgow are trying to keep this fraying North-South conflict alive, meeting every morning and afternoon in Glasgow for team pep talks with the ‘G77 plus China’ bloc of developing countries. But the faux alliance is riven with internal differences.

Many are members of other intersecting blocs that want tougher CO2 curbs, with a hard target below 1.5 degrees. These include the 55-strong ‘staying alive’ group or Climate Vulnerable Forum now led by Bangladesh, one of many to forswear new coal plants in Glasgow. 

It includes the 48 members of the Least Developed Countries group and most emphatically the Small Island Group, whose leaders have made the greatest splash at Cop26. Tuvalu’s leader delivered a virtual address standing thigh-deep in the sea around his eroding island.

Premier Mia Mottley of Barbados stormed the summit in person, telling the hall that the difference between 1.5°C and 2°C  is the difference between survival and a death sentence. “Are we so blinded and hardened that we can no longer appreciate the cries of humanity?”

“So I ask you, what must we say to our people living on the front line, when ambition and regrettably some of the needed faces at Glasgow are not present?” she asked. The reference to the absent leaders of China, Russia, and Brazil was lost on nobody.

The developing states of the South have a tactical interest in holding Western feet to the fire until creditor states meet their pledge for $100bn of annual funding, although that figure is a formulaic piety.

Lord Nicholas Stern, high priest of global climate economics, said external funding needs are closer to $1 trillion every year this decade, achievable from the vast pool of private global capital, once the plumbing is sorted out.    

But the wrath of the South is turning on China, currently responsible for 85pc of all coal plants in development across the world. It already accounts for 28pc of global emissions and this is heading rapidly for the mid-30s.

The old argument that China’s CO2 emissions per capita are far lower than in the West wears thinner each year. It has already overtaken the UK, France, Italy, and Spain by a wide margin, and will be twice as high within a couple of years.

Beijing is instead trying to weaponise the argument of historical legacy, with help from Jair Bolsonaro’s government in Brazil and a shrinking group of business-as-usual emitters.

But research released this week by Carbon Brief shows that China and Brazil account for a larger share of the accumulated carbon legacy since 1850 than claimed, once you include deforestation and land abuse. 

The US is still the great emitter. It has gobbled up a fifth of the carbon budget used so far. China is at 11.4pc, Russia 6.9pc, Brazil 4.5pc, and Indonesia 4.1pc, with the UK well behind at 3pc and drifting down each year.

Crucially, India is no longer going along with China’s script, even though they are nominally in the same Cop negotiating bloc with Russia and Brazil known as Basic. It has an extremely low share of per capita legacy emissions – a quarter of Chinese levels – yet Narendra Modi has committed to a drastic change in India’s mid-term CO2 trajectory with a target of 50pc renewable power by the end of this decade.

Lord Stern says it is possible that India will achieve peak emissions before 2030 despite a fast-growing population, and even though it is still in the early catch-up phase of economic growth.

This is the under-appreciated miracle of Glasgow. But it also reshuffles climate geopolitics. “We cannot compare India and China. It’s time we de-hyphenated the two,” Sunita Narain from New Delhi’s Centre for Science and Environment.

China has become Glasgow’s awkward customer. While legacy emissions matter – and may end up at the International Court of Justice – current emissions have greater moral potency. What grates is the pattern of China’s behaviour since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned in late 2018 that critical tipping points are closer than previously supposed.

It is worth viewing the Cop26 press conference on the ‘Ten New Insights in Climate Science 2021’ for a quick tour d’horizon of what is going on at the cutting edge of global research. Basically, everything experts were worried about last year, they are even more worried about a year later. The risks are hardening.

The warming threshold deemed likely to trigger feedback loops and unstoppable ‘cascade’ effects keeps falling as the science evolves, with a “very high risk” at barely above two degrees.

It becomes a graver matter to build new coal plants in the face of this broad consensus, and in the knowledge that the world will use up the IPCC’s remaining carbon budget within eight years on pre-Glasgow trends.  

China may wish to hide behind the vulnerable South but the traditional lines of cleavage have broken down at Cop26.

Old habits die hard, of course. Bolivia’s Luis Arce won the prize for neo-Marxist tub-thumping by denouncing “green capitalism” as the latest form of colonialism, while at the same time accusing the rich North of behaving “without any sense of responsibility to nature and mankind”. 

But blaming the West does not really capture the mood in Glasgow. No country is at greater risk of annihilation if we blow much through 1.5 degrees than the Maldives, yet President Mohamed Nasheed refused to rise to the bait when asked to play the North-South guilt card.

“The people of the Maldives did nothing to the planet but we are in the front line. There’s coastal erosion in almost every island; our water is contaminated; our reefs are bleached; we’re losing our fisheries; we’re losing our livelihood; we’re losing a country,” he told a Cop26 event held by the Atlantic Council. 

“There is a moral argument for us to reach out to richer countries but  I don’t want to frame the climate change issue in anticolonial language. You did not invent the internal combustion engine to murder us,” he said.

President Nasheed said a 1.5 degree world is still attainable and what matters is what we do from now on. The imperative is clear. “We have to open the arsenal of technology,” he said.

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