The Trump administration’s priority at the UN climate talks in Bonn is to block developing countries like China from getting an easier ride.
That is what the US president’s lead climate adviser George David Banks told reporters in an impromptu corridor huddle on Tuesday. It was the most high-level engagement with the process seen from the White House since Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement – unless the US could secure more favourable terms.
Asked what the US hoped to achieve at the talks, Banks said: “We want to make sure that we do what we can to avoid bifurcation. Bifurcation is a major flaw in the framework convention and we certainly don’t want to see it in the Paris Agreement. So I would say that’s probably the number one priority.”
This fortnight’s talks have seen the reemergence of the idea that rich and poor countries can be divided into two camps – a firewall the Paris agreement was supposed to overcome.
The original UN climate convention divided the world into industrialised “annex one” countries and the rest. The Paris deal blurred that line, getting governments to contribute what they could, “in light of different national circumstances”. China, for example, has set a tougher target than Chad. Significantly, China committed to emissions curbs for the first time.
Despite this, a major argument deployed against the Paris deal by Trump and his environment chief Scott Pruitt was the advantages they said it gave to China and other developing countries.
In Bonn, negotiators are thrashing out rules for monitoring countries’ progress towards their climate goals. And a bloc known as the ‘like-minded developing countries’, which includes China, India and Iran, has been inserting draft text that would create a two-tier system of reporting.
Last week, Chen Zhihua, a senior Chinese negotiator, told reporters: “Although we heard some different views from the developed world that we’re entering into a new world without differentiation among developing and developed countries. I think that is not the truth.”
On Tuesday, EU climate commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete said the position of the Europeans was that “we should follow what we agreed in Paris”.
“It’s very clear that there are some countries that still think that the binary approach should continue,” he said. “But we cannot go to the old story of the annexes. For sure this is going to be a difficult topic.”
The flare-up has raised fears negotiators may not meet the November 2018 deadline for finalising the Paris rulebook.
On Monday, the two diplomats leading this strand of talks said they would need one or two extra meetings before the 2018 summit in Katowice, Poland.
The Saudi Arabian and New Zealander diplomats wrote in a non-paper that there was “a considerable amount of work required” to finalise the rules.
New Zealand co-chair Jo Tyndall told Climate Home News: “It doesn’t indicate slower progress. Rather, it reflects recognition that the APA [negotiating forum] has a big and complex agenda, with much to be completed within the next year. There are different views on whether an additional session will definitely be necessary.”
The call did not surprise some observers, who noted the complexity of making rules to monitor emissions, while accounting for the different situations each national government faces as it tries to cut down on pollution.
Similar extraordinary sessions were required before the Paris climate conference in 2015 that secured the deal.
“We have a massive amount of drafting to do. This is bigger than the Paris Agreement, and we have one year to do it,” said one negotiator from a vulnerable country.
The reemergence of the issue of bifurcation was “concerning”, they said: “We seem to be re-litigating things that were resolved in Paris.” In some areas of the talks there had been “no substantive discussion at all,” the negotiator added.
Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists and a long time observer of the UN climate talks, told Climate Home News that if this issue were not resolved it would be a “huge issue” in Katowice.
“I think you will see massive objections from developed countries and some of the developing countries,” he said. “The whole point of Paris is that everyone has responsibilities.”
It is not the only area of discussions to run into difficulty. As of Tuesday afternoon, debate over an Iranian proposal to put rich countries’ pre-2020 pledges on the agenda defied resolution.
The Fijian presidency of the Bonn talks did not respond to a request for comment.