China, US & climate in a wider context (Part I)

Fredag, 5. November 2010     0 kommentti(a)
Andrew Jones
Internationell miljö- och naturresurspolitik forsknigsprogram

Why the UNFCCC faces the forces of history (and the Republicans) Part I

The next round of the Conference of Parties in Cancun, Mexico is on the horizon. In stark contrast to the hope that surrounded the COP15 in Copenhagen, a sense of ennui lingers. Unfortunately, when taking into consideration the history of the two main players, this pessimism is not misplaced.

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change has drawn criticism for its failure to deliver binding agreements, particularly on long-term action, though in fairness the challenges it needs to overcome are substantial. As the largest producer of CO2 and the biggest historical greenhouse gas emitter respectively, China and the United States are key to reaching a global deal on climate change. Yet the very fabric and origins of these two states mean that bringing them into a collective agreement is a tall order.

The features and context of America’s political birth, based on ‘self-evident truths’, helped give rise to the notions of ‘American exceptionalism’ – holding America to be sui generis - and ‘manifest destiny’, which considered the United States’ expansion into the West as predetermined and just.

These notions have continued to impress upon US politics and policy over its history up to recent times. The ideas of a divine right or moral obligation to expand and frontierism were embodied in the Monroe Doctrine in the 1820s, which declared (prematurely) the Western Hemisphere to be a sphere of US hegemony and threatened intervention against those interfering therein. Further manifestations of this are discernible in US intervention in Latin America during the Cold War and, within the United Nations context, the infamous interpretation of UN Resolution 1441, used to initiate military actions against the regime of Saddam Hussein. This is widely held by critics as salient proof of the United States putting its own interests above international law.

As a caveat to this, the US has no problems with involvement in international institutions such as the IMF and World Bank. However, a distinction can be made between these US-led institutions and those driven more equally by its members, as with UN bodies. The latter are considered to allow foreign states can collectively impinge upon American interests. Hence, concerning climate negotiations, recent US administrations have either failed get Kyoto Protocol ratification through the Senate or rejected the KP outright, as it has been seen to be both detrimental to the US economy and American interests in general and the US economy in particular.

As for China, the humiliation suffered at the hands of the colonial powers in the 19th Century has been neither erased from the collective consciousness, nor forgotten by the Communist Party of what is now the People's Republic of China. The PRC, established in 1949, was influenced by these experiences and refused to enter the political orbit of Moscow in the bi-polar Cold War environment. Instead, symbolically at the Bandung Conference in 1955, China chose the route of non-alignment, together with Asian and African countries. It was in this climate of anti-hegemonic attitude and decolonisation that China and India, both with experiences of being under colonial control, enshrined the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, now the cornerstone of Chinese external relations.

The five principles include the tenets of ‘mutual respect for each other's territorial integrity and sovereignty’ and ‘mutual non-interference in each other's internal affairs’. The influence of these principles can be seen in China’s behaviour at the United Nations, most notably of late in China’s recalcitrance over matters involving the use of sanctions against states – prominently in the case of Iran. What this means for the UNFCCC is that the international verification of mitigation commitments and actions (measuring, reporting and verifying actions and emissions in order to track parties’ progress) is a sticking point, as to China this is tantamount to interference in internal affairs. Additionally, in the long term, China is careful not to have limits placed on its options for economic growth – which is after all the source of the regime’s continued legitimacy.

The above presents a case that there is inherent reluctance for America and China to commit to internationally binding, verifiable agreements which are considered to involve foreign states’ interests encroaching upon their national concerns. Thus, looking beyond the minutiae of climate negotiations, the UNFCCC has its work cut out in trying to foster an inclusive post-2012 climate regime to continue on from the Kyoto Protocol. It’s hard therefore not to have sympathy with the process, but at the same time one must ask the question: what can we expect the climate talks deliver?



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