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Opinion: Pollution means power

As developing countries discovered in Copenhagen on Monday, being in the right doesn't buy much.

Poor countries need the rich world to implement steep cuts in emissions and to provide the funding to adapt to the inevitable impacts of climate change, but there’s little they can offer in return. With the exception of countries where deforestation is an issue, they don’t produce much greenhouse gas.

In the short term, global emissions can be cut without the participation of countries like Kiribati (disappearing beneath the waves), Bangladesh (vulnerable to catastrophic flooding) or Sudan (home to what might be the first climate conflict). But it’s these least resilient parts of the globe, that are most threatened by the thermometer’s rise. A breakdown in talks would fall heaviest on those that participated in the walkout.

As a result, poor countries are finding it difficult to make their voices heard. Last week, America’s chief climate negotiator Todd Stern dismissed “the sense of guilt or culpability or reparations,” and reiterated that the U.S. would not join the Kyoto Protocol — a treaty the U.S Senate rejected on the grounds that it did not require emission cuts from the developing world.

Drafts of a possible agreement suggest transfers of $10 billion a year to help developing countries deal with the impacts of warming — far short of the up to $100 billion poor countries and the World Bank say is needed.

More importantly, emission reductions are still far short of the levels needed to avert catastrophic climate change. While the European Union is said to be considering emissions of cuts by 2020 of 30 percent from 1990 levels, the United States is offering less than 5 percent, and negotiators have made clear that they don’t think they can get more past the Senate.

If the talks are to succeed in stopping the mercury’s climb, it won’t be because the world’s poorest threatened to walk. It will be because another set of countries decided to participate: the rapidly growing parts of the developing world that are projected to soon produce the bulk of the world’s greenhouse gas.

Industrialized countries would like to see populous giants like China and India agree to limit the growth of their emissions. That makes those countries uniquely in a position to extract the concessions needed from reluctant rich-world countries. In a negotiation where pollution means power, their future emissions have given them a seat at a table.