BANGKOK — China's top climate envoy insisted Wednesday that it is unfair to expect all countries to play a role in combating global warming, leading to a rare public spat with delegates from the U.S. and Europe.
The unexpected exchange at a news conference at the U.N. climate talks in Bangkok laid bare what has been clear in at the negotiating tables for days — that a long-running divide between rich and poor countries shows no sign of abating despite promises by some major developing countries to cut their emissions of the gases responsible for climate change.
That poses a problem as negotiators work feverishly to craft a new climate pact to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012. World leaders are hoping to forge a new deal in December in Copenhagen.
Speaking at a joint news conference, the chief U.S. negotiator insisted that industrialized countries alone can't reduce emissions enough to avert the worst impacts of climate change.
"If the United States joined with other countries in the developed world without other major economies, we don't solve the problem," Jonathan Pershing said.
That led China's Yu Qingtai to point out that developed countries are responsible for centuries of pollution and that China's per capita emissions are only a third of those in rich countries — even though it now is the world's top polluter.
Yu then uttered a line that poor countries have been using at climate talks for years — that they are the victims of climate change and that rich countries are largely responsible for the problem.
"In all fairness, we cannot sit here today and talk about everybody making an effort," he said.
That brought a sharp rebuke from Karl Falkenberg, the European Commission's director general of the environment, who said nothing would be gained by focusing on per capita emissions.
"We know that consequences of climate change are seen more dramatically as of now in the developing world so continuing to argue (there is) almost a human right to pollution as I heard from my Chinese colleague is not the way we need to go about it," Falkenberg said.
He pointed out that every country is a polluter and that "the atmosphere does not really care where these emissions are coming from."
Most countries have agreed that any new pact should include provisions to maintain temperature increases of 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit below pre-industrial levels of about 150 years ago — the threshold at which most scientists say serious climate change will ensue.
That would require emissions cuts from industrial countries of 25 percent to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, far above the 15 to 23 percent cuts rich countries have offered so far.
Even without an agreement, countries including China, India, Brazil and Indonesia have rolled out plans to take action on a national level.
But in Bangkok, these and other nations have drawn the line at committing those actions to a binding agreement due to the fact that rich nations, especially the United States, have not committed to economy-wide targets and none have offered up the hundred of billions of dollars that will be needed to help poor nations adapt to climate change and transition to a low carbon economy.
Their frustrations have boiled over several times in Bangkok, especially when the talk has turned to what a post-Kyoto agreement would look like. Late Tuesday, members of the Group of 77 developing nations and China walked out of a meeting over Kyoto, delegates said.
Most poor countries want to keep the framework of the Kyoto pact, which commits 37 wealthy nations to cutting greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012 but doesn't require any binding commitments from developing countries.
Former President George W. Bush rejected that pact, contending that it was unfair not to require developing countries to curb emissions. The United States is the only major industrialized country that did not ratify the pact.
Australia, the United States and Japan have offered up a range of proposals in Bangkok on a new framework that takes aspects of Kyoto and broadens it to include major developing nations.
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