LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The world's least developed countries are sending out signals that they are willing to put their economic development on a low-carbon path, but questions remain as to how this can be achieved without more financial and technology support from rich nations.
Ahead of this year's first round of U.N. climate talks, which take place in Bonn next week, the new chair of the Least Developed Countries (LDC) bloc at the negotiations called for the group's 49 states to become the "deal makers".
The Bonn session will focus on the scope, structure and design of a global climate deal due to be agreed in 2015, as well as how to boost international ambition to reduce greenhouse gas emissions before the new agreement kicks in from 2020.
"It is time we shaped the agenda and the decisions, instead of having them shaped for us," Prakash Mathema told a strategy meeting of the LDC group in Kathmandu last month.
He said 45 of the world's poorest countries had already set a good example by putting together action plans for climate adaptation. And some have already started planning to develop in a greener way, he added, citing Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Gambia and Nepal as leaders in this field.
After the gathering of senior negotiators in Nepal, it was reported that the least developed countries are prepared to commit themselves to legally binding cuts in their greenhouse gas emissions. But Mathema told Thomson Reuters Foundation this is not yet an official position for the group, which has so far called on developed countries to take the main responsibility for mitigating climate change by reducing emissions.
"As LDCs have low emissions and lack capacity, binding emissions reduction will put additional burden on them and affect their efforts in poverty reduction and sustainable development. The (U.N.) Climate Convention also recognises our special circumstances and gives us flexibility with regard to mitigation actions," Mathema said in an emailed response to questions.
"Despite this, some individual LDCs are showing great leadership in preparing and implementing low-carbon development strategies," he added.
Quamrul Chowdhury, a lead negotiator for the group who was the main source for the report on LDCs committing to binding cuts, also took a more cautious line than his earlier assertions.
"Regarding the emission cuts, I think we have to go a long way before reaching a conclusion, given the stalemate position of the developed nations and also some others," he said in an email. "We need, even in (the) LDCs, some more time, space and discussions."
One key aim of any such move on the part of the poorest nations would be be to ramp up moral pressure on major polluting countries to raise their own targets for emissions cuts both before and after 2020.
Pledges to date put the world on track for a temperature rise of around 3.3 degrees Celsius by 2100, according to Climate Action Tracker, an independent science-based assessment. Governments have agreed within the U.N. process to limit global warming to 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels, but it is widely acknowledged that they will fail to meet this goal unless they cut greenhouse gas emissions more drastically.
The current impasse is rooted in disagreement over how to share out responsibility for emissions reductions. Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists noted that a submission ahead of the Bonn meeting from the "like minded group" of states, which includes major developing-country emitters China and India, indicates support for a continuation of the U.N. convention's existing onus on industrialised nations to take mitigation action.
But "if you talk to the developed countries, this is not their interpretation (of the framework for a 2015 agreement)," he told journalists this week. "They want the legal character to be the same for all countries, and this is going to be a flashpoint."
The LDC group, meanwhile, said in a submission for Bonn that is seeking an agreement that is "legally binding in nature with individual commitments that fulfill the needs of science-based emission reductions required to tackle climate change without compromising the urgency for reducing poverty and promoting sustainable development in LDCs".
Whether the group consolidates a formal position on emissions cuts next week or at a later stage, more of the poorest nations can be expected to come up with low-carbon development plans in an effort to drive the negotiations forward, said Sven Harmeling of Germanwatch, a Bonn-based advocacy group that tracks the U.N. talks closely.
"This would be a continuation of the strengthening of the LDCs, which have made some substantial moves in terms of becoming much more involved in the U.N. process and in their dialogue with the European Union and other countries that seem to be more ambitious (in tackling climate change)," he said.
While a collective low-carbon commitment from the LDCs would not make a major difference to overall carbon emissions, as they account for just several percent of the global total, it would be significant in terms of moral impact and the power of example, Meyer said.
But inadequate funding and technology to help the poorest countries put low-carbon strategies into practice would be a major stumbling block, warned Mohamed Nasr, an Egyptian diplomat and advisor to the African country group at the climate talks.
"Without the means of implementation, progress will be very difficult," he told Thomson Reuters Foundation. "Why would you ask developing countries to move two steps forward while others are getting rid of their commitments and taking two steps back?"
Maldives and Costa Rica are aiming to become carbon neutral by 2020 and 2021 respectively, but even if others follow their lead, most would require greater external support to achieve such a goal, he added.
Pledges from developing countries - including the world's biggest emitter, China - to reduce emissions already amount to more than the total offered by developed countries, Nasr noted.
At the 2012 climate summit in Doha, some rich nations did sign up to an extension of the Kyoto Protocol to limit emissions until 2020, but others - including Russia, Japan and Canada - pulled out, meaning the treaty now covers less than 15 percent of global emissions.
There were also few firm promises of climate finance for vulnerable countries in the coming years, except from some European states, after an initial period of "fast start" funding ended in 2012.
Due to Doha's weak results, discussions on the 2015 deal will start on Monday in a "not very friendly atmosphere", Nasr said. "This is raising alarm."