International climate change negotiations face a real challenge over the debate about responsibilities shared between North and South. Harald Winkler of the Energy Research Centre at the University of Cape Town notes that developing countries are starting to recognise that it is in their own interest to establish an effective and equitable system for climate change mitigation, but this attitude was not met by developed countries at Poznan and has created a 'trust deficit'. Added to this, signatories to Kyoto are going to start finding excuses for why they have failed to meet their obligations for emissions reductions under the protocol. (Of the countries that signed, more than half are not on track to meet their targets.)
If trust is not restored through a greater demonstration of commitment from developed countries, the South is not likely to take on greater responsibility. Instead of finding ways to mitigate climate change, the developing world will strengthen its call for aid in the process of adaptation. Greater dependence on aid will not benefit anyone in the long run.
Barack Obama seems to offer hope that the US will pull up its socks, and is adding momentum for a global carbon market with his backing of a market-based cap on carbon. But if the US administration buckles under business pressure, with the argument that industry cannot afford the cost of carbon, that will further jeopardise negotiations. The developing world is not blind, and can see very clearly that industrialised countries have had a free ride for too long.
South Africa is already putting in place measures that will force business to bear at least some of the environmental costs of emissions. A tax of 2c per kilowatt-hour (kWh) on electricity generated from non-renewable sources is expected to be in place within a few months, an emissions tax is proposed for vehicles, and an energy conservation scheme will require users to consume 10 percent less than in the base period of September 2006 to October 2007. And at last week's climate conference in SA, the role of the building industry moved up the agenda in synch with international efforts by the Green Building Councils. The contribution of buildings to emissions is significant, but has not been adequately addressed in negotiations, but now there is talk in South Africa of requiring all public (government) buildings being required to achieve a four-star Green Star rating.
The mechanisms for implementing these and other strategies are still being worked out, but government commitment is there. South Africa's Marthinus van Schalkwyk, Minister of Environmental Affairs & Tourism, has established a credible reputation at UN talks, and the government is committed to having carbon emissions peak between 2020 and 2025 (not soon enough, but pretty ambitious compared with most countries).
Many other developing countries do not have the resources or the economic resilience possessed by South Africa, but this country's lead gives the continent some credibility at the negotiating table. And God knows, we need it now, more than ever before. When George W. Bush was at the helm of the USS America, it wasn't hard for the rest of the world (other than, let's say, Canada, Australia and Japan) to maintain the moral high ground. But Captain Obama has not only thrown a lifeline to climate negotiations, he has also thrown up a challenge.
America is no longer a rudderless, burnt-out shell of a ship; it has renewed energy, a stated commitment to changing course, and a reinvigorated sense of purpose. And therein lies the challenge for the rest of the world. America is not a nimble craft, it is a supertanker that takes immense effort to turn around. I have no doubt about Obama's sincerity, but whether he can steer the ship in the direction he intends, only time will tell. My point here, though, is not about whether America's direction will be good for all who follow in her wake - important as that is. My point is that America likes to see itself as the pilot ship, and with the high expectations being placed on Obama by the rest of the world, the danger is that we will trust him implicitly to do the "right thing" when he may not be able to deliver on that promise, and we will be left high and dry.
While there has been a trust deficit at climate negotiations, what happens if Obama does succeed in righting the ship? Will others be able to stay their course? Obama may restore trust by showing commitment to addressing climate change, but that is no excuse for other countries to abandon their posts. An equitable outcome to the negotiations requires a reasonable balance of power. It is quite possible that the tables will be turned, and the rest of the world will suddenly find itself powerless to determine its own direction.