The success or failure of the United Nations climate change summit in Copenhagen in December will probably hinge on a single question: is the industrialised world prepared to provide serious financial help for developing nations to reduce their carbon emissions?
If poorer countries feel that rich nations, which are largely responsible for existing high levels of carbon in the atmosphere, are not serious about helping them to clean up their economies, there will be no deal. The United Nations estimates that annual global transfers of $150bn a year by 2020 will be needed to convince the likes of China, India and Brazil to sign up to binding cuts in their own carbon emissions over the coming century.
That is the context in which to evaluate yesterday's Brussels summit communiqué, which commits European Union member states to paying their "fair share" of this $150bn to developing nations by the end of the next decade, conditional on other rich countries around the world making similar pledges.
Their failure to put a specific figure on what they will commit in aid represents a missed opportunity. A solid figure would have made it easier for other wealthy nations such as America and Japan to make their own pledges over the coming weeks before Copenhagen. A bill for cutting America's emissions is making its way through the US Congress. A firm financial aid commitment from the EU might have put some wind in the sails of that bill. As it is, it might still be stuck in the legislative process by the time of the UN conference, which would weaken President Barack Obama's influence there.
A bolder EU pledge would also have sent a clear message to developing nations that the rich world is serious about sharing the financial burden of mitigating runaway climate change and that it does not expect poorer nations to shoulder all the costs themselves. As things stand, these nations are still likely to need much convincing. How this global clash between the perceived interests of "rich" and "poor" will be resolved remains unclear.
The EU seems to have suffered in recent days from its own version of that conflict. Opposition to proposals for a firm pledge was mounted by a group of nine of the less prosperous EU nations, many of which have a considerable heavy industry infrastructure (a legacy of their years under Soviet domination). A combination of their fears of being forced to pay penal amounts in aid and the trepidation of some richer nations about being too specific on pledges would appear to have prevailed this week.
Yet we should not be overly pessimistic. In fairness to the EU, it has gifts to bring to the Copenhagen table other than a solid offer on aid transfers. We should not forget that the EU has already pledged to cut its carbon emissions by 20 per cent on 1990 levels by the end of the decade, rising to 30 per cent if other nations do the same.
What has emerged from this summit is better than nothing. It does not shut the door on success at Copenhagen. Indeed, it keeps it open. But we need to be realistic. Nothing EU leaders have agreed in recent days brings a deal significantly closer. A huge amount of hard work still lies ahead if a global agreement on tackling the impending climate disaster is to be struck in the Danish capital.Reuse content