Climate negotiatiors need to overhaul their list of who's rich and who's poor.

News and commentary about environmental issues.
Dec. 11 2008 11:42 AM

The Problem in Poznan

According to the U.N. climate negotiators, Singapore and Kuwait are among the poorest countries in the world.

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These problems have not gone unnoticed by negotiators. In response, Australia recently proposed (PDF) that countries wrongly categorized as poor be reclassified and forced to assume the same responsibilities as the wealthy. (It helpfully includes a "Ukraine List" of 44 countries with higher per-person GDP than the "wealthy" Ukraine.) Japan has offered its own scheme, which would divide the world into three groups: a much larger set of wealthy countries than has been used in the past, an intermediate group of rapidly developing countries, and a third set of substantially poorer states.

Resistance has, predictably, been strong. Negotiators from the "poor" nations of China and Brazil have objected loudly  (Word file). Perhaps most galling is the outspoken opposition of Singapore, which ranks ahead of the United States, Sweden, and Japan in per-person wealth. But even legitimately poor countries, worried about maintaining solidarity, have toed the line.

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It's a dangerous situation. So long as negotiators insist on treating Singapore, China, and Togo as part of the same group of poor countries, they are not going to be able to find a set of rules that works for all of them. And if they continue to pretend that Ukraine and Switzerland are economically comparable and both wealthy, they're going to have a hard time coming up with a formula for rich countries' shared obligations, too.

If negotiators allow for new shades of gray, that might change. Acknowledging that there is a middle group of countries, including China and Brazil, would be a particularly important breakthrough. (The precise definition of this middle group would need to be negotiated—GDP per person would probably have to be supplemented by other measures of wealth and development.) Those countries are rich enough to have some capacity to cut their emissions on their own but poor enough that they need help doing more. They have no natural place in the current climate regime's taxonomy. If reforms freed negotiators to focus on the particular challenges those countries pose, though, progress might be more forthcoming.

To be certain, changing the way countries are classified would not be a panacea. Diplomats from big developing countries would still try to avoid making commitments, regardless of what category their countries were in. And some countries can't readily be classified under any scheme.In particular,India, whose citizens are the world's 136th wealthiest (behind Nicaragua and Iraq), is poor by most measures. But letting that justify an exemption from all emissions-cutting rules would be dangerous, since it is also the world's third- or fourth-largest greenhouse-gas emitter. It won't be sufficient to replace one rigid set of categories with another; negotiators will have to make difficult adjustments on the margin.

But that should not deter the United States and others from attempting to press forward on reform. The next year of negotiations will be challenging; failure is a significant possibility. If proposals for a new agreement don't reflect the many ways the world has changed since the 1990s, though, it's a guarantee.

Michael Levi is the David M. Rubenstein senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations. He blogs at CFR.org.

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