On Monday, December 30, Heads of States from all around world kick started the 2-week long conference with their opening statements. Most acknowledged the urgency of the climate problem and called for global action to tackle the problem. However, such multilateral platforms are as much an outlet for colorful displays of diplomatic rhetoric as a place for negotiations. The true test of political will comes in the subsequent negotiations, where negotiators attempt (or not) to resolve key differences and challenges.
Perhaps the most important interaction to observe is that between United States and China. The two countries collectively accounts for over 40% and thus no solutions will be effective without the participation from US and China. However, each has its own set of problems that may block progress of the Paris Summit.
It is clear the President Obama is onboard with the climate challenge. During his opening speech, he reiterated the urgency of the climate challenge, that “we are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last generation to do something about it.” On day 2, he expressed his support for small island nations by stating that he is an “island boy”.
However, the true test for President Obama will be to convince Congress to get onboard. Just a day before COP21, Mitch McConnell (R-Ken), majority leader of the U.S. Senate, posted an op-ed in Washington Post titled “Obama takes his reckless energy plan to the United Nations”. He called committing to an international agreement irresponsible and a desperate attempt for Obama to establish his presidential legacy. Due to Congress’ intransigence, Secretary of State John Kerry has already stated that Paris will not produce a “legally binding” agreement. During U.S Climate Action Network’s press briefing at COP21, Alden Meyer of Union of Concerned Scientists states his optimism that Congress will come around “in the next 4 or 5 years”. That is a pretty low threshold for a problem this urgent. As for now, President Obama’s ability to advance change is greatly limited by Congress and powerful interest groups at home.
Surely, the joint statement to tackle climate change made by US and China during APEC and Xi Jinping’s state visit are positive signs towards collaboration. However, a look into history reveals otherwise. US and China has a history of making joint statements on climate change during their state visits. In 1997, President Jiang Zemin signed the “U.S.-China Initiative on Energy and Environment Cooperation” with President Bill Clinton during his state visit to the US. President Hu Jintao signed 13 bilateral clean energy and climate change cooperation deals with President Obama in Beijing, months before the Copenhagen COP15. Such extensive bilateral declaration did not deter Copenhagen Summit from ending in disaster.
While it wants to be seen as an equal to the United State in its bilateral diplomacy, China firmly takes the stance of a developing country in multilateral arenas. This was reiterated by President Xi Jinping’s opening remarks, calling for all countries, “especially the developed countries”, to contribute to the global endeavor. He further stated that each country needs to find a solution in accordance to the national context and that combating climate change should no hinder developing countries’ ability to eradicate poverty and other development problems. This will define China’s negotiating position. Already, China has declared it will not contribute to the Green Climate Fund. Instead, it has pledged 20billion yuan into the “South-South Cooperation Fund”, which will launch a myriad of project (with auspicious numberings) to aid developing nations.
While President Obama hung around Le Bourget on December 2, Chinese President Xi Jinping made his way to Africa for a 5-day visit. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who is on United State’s targeted sanction list but is a longtime friend of China, has welcomed Xi. As the bosses leave and the negotiators get to work, it will be interesting to watch these two superpowers.
Watch live negotiations and press conferences: here
Complete negotiation agenda: here
Complete negotiation schedule for Week 1: here
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