Talking points

  • A long-standing voting bloc is made up of Brazil, India, South Africa and China.
  • Europe, the UK and US are offering $US10 billion to South Africa to shut its fleet of coal-powered generators.
  • The move is seen as an effort to weaken China’s influence over the country.
  • Some fear the politicisation of climate change debate is likely to hamper the global resolve.

At a glance the announcement at United Nations climate talks last week that the United States along with the United Kingdom and other European nations would channel US$10 billion to South Africa to help it shut down its fleet of coal-power generators is unvarnished good news for the world.

And it is good news. It is an example of how wealthy nations might help emerging economies skip faster past the carbon heavy period of their development.

Former US president Barack Obama speaks during day nine of COP26.Credit:Getty

But it’s more than that. It is also an example of the geostrategic intrigue attendant to the climate talks.

One of the long-standing voting blocs in the Conference of the Parties has been BASIC — made up of Brazil, India, South Africa and China.

These large emerging economies have traditionally pushed back on the demands of western nations that they decarbonise faster, pointing out not unreasonably that the world is in this mess because rich nations developed their economies over centuries by burning hydrocarbons.

Wealthier nations contend, not unreasonably, that we are all cooked if BASIC nations don’t increase their ambition.

In a world where, as former President Barack Obama put in his speech today, international cooperation has atrophied, these tensions are feeding into climate talks, particularly between the US and China.

The South Africa deal is not only an example of the creative use of financial assistance to help a heavy emitter decarbonise faster, says one COP veteran, it also serves to stick a wedge in the BASIC bloc.

“Of course the US wants to break apart the BASIC bloc. It has been a force in the negotiations, and it’s probably still going to raise its head here in some fashion. I’d be very shocked if it didn’t.

“But [the coal deal] is probably going to knock off the rough edges of how it operates, if South Africa knows that it’s going to have this funding stream coming in for saving their utility system, which is a complete shambles.

“South Africa may not swing in as hard behind what China wants. So I think the US has gone through a very deliberative process here.

So what does China want? Well, traditionally, China and BASIC have pushed back against calls to strengthen emission reduction ambitions.

At this COP there may also be differences on the design of new rules on how emissions are to be measured and accounted for. Some developing nations are concerned about the cost and technical feasibility of measuring the carbon output of their economies.

Efforts to split China from its broad support among many climate vulnerable and developing nations are not new. Indeed, the US$100 billion rich nations promised to “mobilise” annually by 2020 for developing nations for climate mitigation and adaptation was originally announced by Hillary Clinton as a mechanism to achieve just that.

The figure, says Mohamed Adow, director of the climate and energy think tank Power Shift Africa, was neither sufficient for the task, nor based on any serious analysis of need. Rather it was a shock and awe political wedge.

In the end it was never delivered either, and served only to reinforce the sense of abandonment felt by those nations to which it was promised.

While the West overpromises and under delivers, says Adow, China has been steadily building friendships in places like Africa with funding for infrastructure and, during the pandemic, with vaccines, he says.

The developing world needed funding for mitigation before temperature rises started to bite, then when they began to hit they needed support for adaptation. Because temperatures continue to rise and adaptation targets were never even properly set, let alone met, they now need funding for loss and damage due to extreme weather events.

Having set what Boris Johnson called “the Doomsday Clock” in motion with the industrial revolution, rich nations have failed developing nations at every turn, says Adow.

And at COP on Monday with its focus on finance, it still did not understand how betrayed developing nations feel.

South Africa’s stance within BASIC may be blunted by their new funding, but the rest of Africa is unlikely to abandon its more reliable friend in China, says Adow.

Adow’s fear is that the geostrategic competition at the COP undermines the unity of action the crisis demands, and which the Paris Agreement went some way to securing.

He looks back to World War II when Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill forged an alliance to defeat Hitler.

“Don’t look at the physics of climate change,” he urges. “Look at the politics. It is not up to it.”

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