- Joining Brasilia in threat to block agreement on carbon markets, Beijing disappoints western climate diplomats and negotiators
- ‘Brazil’s stance is very strong and it has put up a very defensive approach,’ a Chinese delegate says. ‘It is a headache even for us’
With Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro turning a blind eye to environmental concerns, western governments initially cast their hopes on China to engage the Brazilians during the annual UN conference on climate change.
But those expectations have been dashed, as China has turned out to share more common ground with Brazil than with the West.
China has pledged to uphold the landmark Paris Agreement and create a green nation. But global environmental groups and many diplomats and negotiators at the COP25 summit in Madrid, Spain, now complain of China's acquiescence with Brazil's threat to block an agreement on a planned global carbon market scheme.
The UN climate summit is scheduled to end on Friday, but there is now at best only cautious optimism about the 195 participating nations reaching an agreement.
More pervasive is the disappointment over China's statement, issued jointly on Wednesday with Brazil, India and South Africa, that denounces "imbalances in negotiations" that the four nations contend have led to a lack of climate financing commitments from developed nations.
Together, the four accounted for 36.6 per cent of the world's total carbon dioxide emissions in 2017, according to UN statistics.
"China's influence over Brazil in the climate diplomacy will probably be discreet, but they will surely have an impact. The question is how much," Mauricio Santoro, a political scientist and professor at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, said. "I believe that (China) will probably help in amending some of the Brazilian positions."
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Carlos Fuller, a negotiator from Belize, told the BBC that Brazil and China were "part of the problem", alongside Saudi Arabia and India, in the failure so far to hammer out an agreement.
According to a global NGO source, China acquiesced when Brazil vehemently blocked use of the term "climate urgency" during discussions over the language of the summit's concluding statement, to be issued when COP25 ends on Friday.
In response, a Chinese delegate, speaking to the South China Morning Post on condition of anonymity, said China initially wanted to see whether Brazil might relax its hardline anti-environmental position before the four-nation statement was issued.
"Brazil's stance is very strong and it has put up a very defensive approach in COP25," he said. "It is a headache even for us."
Article 6 of the Paris accord on climate change, which calls for countries to agree on how to finance climate mitigation measures " including funding provided by wealthier nations to help poorer nations reduce their carbon dioxide emissions " has been the key contentious issue at the summit.
The possibility of coordination between the two marks a change from just a year ago, when the fiery Bolsonaro was elected president in September 2018 and flirted with the idea of leaving the Paris Agreement, as US President Donald Trump had done.
Bolsonaro had also criticised his country's relations with China, the world's second largest economy, saying a month after his election win: "The Chinese are not buying in Brazil. They are buying Brazil."
But relations warmed afterwards, culminating in Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Brasilia last month for the BRIC summit, which Bolsanaro also attended.
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Analysts say that China's economic importance to Brazil has softened Bolsonaro's rhetoric. Bilateral trade between the two was nearly US$100 billion last year, according to the Brazilian foreign ministry.
When Brazil drew global condemnation as the Amazon rainforest burned this summer, China did not criticise the country's policies " in contrast to actors like the European Union, Santoro noted.
Additionally, he said, "China is key in making Brazilian companies and government follow global rules" because Chinese companies are the biggest buyers of Brazil's agricultural products.
Brazil exported nearly 80 per cent of its soybeans to China, according to the Secretariat of Trade of Brazil. Chinese companies have also made nearly US$30 billion in investments in the country from 2007 to 2017, according to the China-Latin America Finance Database.
Kathryn Hochstetler, a professor in international development at the London School of Economics, said that Brazil would be unlikely to budge on some key positions, such as transferring pre-existing carbon credits formed under the Kyoto Protocol to the Paris Agreement.
Since the Kyoto Protocol came into effect in 2005, a trading mechanism allows countries to invest in low-carbon projects in developing nations, earning credits towards their emissions.
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Critics have called for ending the system, since it allows countries with credits to set lower future targets when cutting greenhouse gases. But Brazil and China, with the most such projects, have been the biggest beneficiaries, and have called for the credits to remain under the new climate agreement.
She added that Brazil's long-time stance on the issue remains unchanged: that developed countries cannot avoid cutting their own emissions through buying offset credits.
"It would be really surprising for any Brazilian government to be easily swayed, much less this one," said Hochstetler, referring to a Brasilia that is divided on its foreign policy, including climate diplomacy.
"Some of the (other) pieces on the climate negotiation's edge would be fungible. I would also say it depends on what kind of bargaining power that China has."
In a news conference last week at the climate summit, China reiterated its stance on the carbon offset credits.
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"We do hope that this transition could be agreed upon, (that) CDM projects will be transferred to the Paris agreement," said Ma Aimin, an adviser to China's climate negotiating team, using an acronym for the offset system. Ma, however, added that the issue "will not be a deal-breaker" for China, the world's largest carbon emitter.
Jose Antonio Puppim de Oliveira, a professor at Brazil's Getulio Vargas Foundation, a think tank based in Rio de Janeiro, said the two countries have switched sides in recent years when it comes to climate change policy: Brazil had been one of the leaders among developing countries on climate sustainability, while China was focused more on its economic development, he said.
"Now it's the other way around," Puppim de Oliverira said, who also teaches at Shanghai's Fudan University.
However, he added, there remains one constant: "They still agree in passing the responsibility for the climate crisis to the rich countries."
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