Under the surface of polite language and formal procedures, UN talks are more about realpolitik than they first appear.
Every country is out to further their own domestic interests, with weaker political forces banding together to have a chance of being heard against the more dominant players, such as the US, Russia and China.
As talks commence in Paris, we’ve mapped which countries are allies, and which nations have feet in more than one camp.
Issues at stake
There are various issues that divide and unite countries: the legal form of the new agreement; how far the deal should differentiate between rich, poor and emerging nations; who should be responsible for providing climate finance; and how to deal with the impacts of climate change now and in the future.
Traditionally, the biggest divide has been between rich and poor countries.
Less developed countries have suggested it is unfair that they should bear responsibility for solving a problem they did not cause, while developed nations such as the US wanted to avoid commitments that they believed might burden their economies.
But the less developed nations are far from a unified bloc.
In fact, they comprise an increasingly complex and interconnected web of negotiating groups, with a range of priorities and positions. In some cases, this has seen them side more with progressive developed nations than with their other developing compatriots.
A changing political scene
Last year, Carbon Brief reported on how the political scene was becoming increasingly fragmented, with old alliances abandoned in favour of new groups.
But the political groupings inside the UN can change quickly.
Until recently, the G77+China bloc was seen as becoming increasingly diverse, as its 134 member states pulled in different directions.
But the group performed a complete volte-face at the recent negotiations in Bonn, raising the spectre of a united and powerful developed country bloc that could hold a vital key to unlocking a successful deal in Paris.
This was precipitated by their increasing frustration over the issue of financial support, as they pushed back heavily against what they perceived as an unwarranted attempt to widen the base of which countries can and should donate climate finance.
The current draft of the UN text illustrates this sharp divide, with two completely contrasting options on how the issue of finance should be taken forward.
At one end of the spectrum lies the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), a coalition of small island and low-lying coastal nations, who have an especially pressing interest in the fight against climate change. Their aim is to lobby for the strongest measures to combat climate change — a position that has often seen them forge informal alliances with the EU in the past.
At the other end is the Like-Minded Developing Countries, a negotiating bloc with contains major oil-producing states, such as Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. This group has strongly rejected the idea that the new deal should contain equal obligations for developed and developing nations, and has pushed for the continuation of a strict division between the two.
As some developing countries have experienced rapid economic growth they have found it easier to move away from the bigger groups, to better push their own agenda. Chief among these groups is BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) an influential bloc of four newly industrialised nations.
Other alliances include the African Group and the Least Developed Countries group, both of which hope to prioritise the issue of financial support.
What does all this mean for Paris?
Countries have set a deadline to agree a new global climate treaty at a conference in Paris this December.
Ultimately, countries must be able to bury their political differences in order for the conference in Paris to be a success.
At the last session in Bonn, groups were encouraged to come forward with “bridging” solutions — a challenge to which only the LDCs and AOSIS have risen so far.
There is still time over the coming two weeks for further shifts in rhetoric and alliances. Indeed, if nations are going to succeed in signing a deal, countries are going to have to soften their stances, reach compromise and abandon some of the issues they have fought for over the last five years.
What will be important is that no country feels it has lost everything — no negotiating team wants to tell their country that they have failed to secure their interests when they return home in just over two weeks.
For a deal to be struck, groups will have to find a balance that allows everyone to spin the deal as a success story, while swallowing some inevitable disappointments along the way.
UN negotiating groups:
- African Group – One of the UN’s five regional negotiating groups, with 54 member states
- Arab Group – formally the League of Arab States, a regional organisation formed in 1945
- BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) – a coalition of four major emerging economies
- Independent Association of Latin America and the Caribbean – a progressive group of developing nations, formed in 2012
- Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) – a Latin American and Caribbean alliance with socialist leanings
- Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) – a group of 44 small islands and low-lying coastal states
- Central Asia, Caucasus and Moldova (CACAM) – a group of 6 countries from the central Asia region
- Coalition for Rainforest Nations (CfRN) – a group of 52 tropical forested nations established to “move from unsustainable to sustainable use of the forests”
- Environmental Integrity Group (EIG) – a small group consisting of both developed and developing nations
- European Union (EU) – the 28 member states of the EU, with negotiations led by DG-Clima
- Group of 77+China (G77+China) – a large alliance of 134 developing nations
- Least Developed Countries (LDCs) – a group of the world’s poorest nations, which evolves as economies change
- Landlocked Developing Countries (LLDCs) – this group champions the interests of the developing countries who lack direct access to the sea, attributing geographic remoteness as a barrier to development
- Like-Minded Developing Countries (LMDCs) – a group of developing countries, representing 3.5bn people, with a strong focus on ensuring rich countries bear most responsibility for tackling climate change
- Umbrella Group – a cross-continent group of countries, many of which have been considered less-than-enthusiastic about climate change in the recent past, although in many cases these stances are now shifting
Other groups in the climate change process:
- Cartagena Dialogue – an informal discussion space open to any countries pursuing similar progressive outcomes at the UN climate talks
- Agence intergouvernementale de la francophonie (OIF) – an organisation of nations where a significant proportion of the population are french-speaking, which together represent over a third of UN member states
- Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) – an organisation formed in the 1960s by various oil-rich states with the mission to “coordinate and unify the petroleum policies” of its members
- Central American Integration System (SICA) – an alliance of central American countries
- Small Island Developing States (SIDS) – a group of 38 developing islands, first recognised by the UN in 1992
Get a Daily or Weekly round-up of all the important articles and papers selected by Carbon Brief by email.