China and India wrote to the UN's climate secretariat today agreeing to be "listed" as a parties to the Copenhagen accord, the last-minute agreement that emerged from the chaos of the UN's summit in Copenhagen.
The action falls short of full "association" and highlights the gulf between the US – the strongest backer of the accord – and the other key nations on how to deliver a global deal to combat climate change.
Since Copenhagen, there has been confusion over how a legally binding treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions can be achieved. All observers, including the UN's top climate official, Yvo de Boer, are now clear that no such deal will be signed in 2010, with a meeting in South Africa in December 2011 now seen as the earliest date.
At the heart of the disagreement is whether a new global treaty, like the existing Kyoto protocol, must be agreed unanimously by all 192 members of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change(UNFCCC) and be a continuation of Kyoto, which enshrines bindings carbon cuts on industrialised nations but not on developing ones.
In a letter to de Boer, Trigg Valley, the director of the US office of global climate change, did move back from earlier suggestions that the US wanted to ditch the UN process, seen as cumbersome by some, and negotiate climate change in a smaller group like the G20 or Major Economies Forum. But he has proposed to set aside some of the existing UN texts, which had been laboriously negotiated over several years, and replace them with passages from the Copenhagen accord.
In the letter from India, Rajani Ranjan Rashmi, environment and forests minister, states baldly the unacceptability of this approach: "The accord is not a new track of negotiations or a template for outcomes."
China's submissions are also unequivocal. The Chinese prime minister,Wen Jiabao, strongly backs the UN process and its consensus-based approach to reaching agreement. "It is neither viable nor acceptable to start a new negotiation process outside the [UNFCCC] and the [Kyoto] protocol", he said.
The US now appears isolated as China, India and many other countries, firmly support the idea of continuing with the two existing UN negotiating tracks to try to achieve a consensus.
The battle of the texts was fought for much of last year with the US backed by Britain and the rest of Europe. Today, the European Commission's first formal statement since Copenhagen offered some support for the US: "The political guidance in the Copenhagen Accord – which was not formally adopted as a UN decision – needs to be integrated into the UN negotiating texts that contain the basis of the future global climate agreement."
But some rich country governments now accept privately that they had "crossed a red line" and failed to recognise that developing countries had not been prepared to abandon the Kyoto protocol without a new legal agreement in place to ensure developed countries reduced emissions.
"The US wants to appear to be leading the world on climate change but it is in a very, very difficult position," said Tom Burke, founder of the consultancy E3G, citing the difficulty President Obama faces in getting a climate change bill through a reluctant senate.
In an recent interview with the Guardian, Yvo de Boer,, played down talk of radical change to the way to the UN process demands unanimous decisions, which some, including Gordon Brown, blamed for a lack of progress in climate talks. He said a major stumbling block to an agreement remained mistrust between the developing and developed countries over the finance needed to help countries adapt to the impacts of global warming.
Rich countries had offered "recycled contributions from the past" he said, while the build-up to the Copenhagen summit had focused too much on the issue of binding emission reduction targets. De Boer has announced he will step down from the UNFCCC in July. Yesterday, the South African tourism minister, Marthinus van Schalkwyk, was nominated by President Jacob Zuma as a candidate. But other candidates, including from India and possibly Indonesia, are expected to make the private shortlist from which the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, will make his choice.