Emerging economies’ dangerous game on the post-2015 development agenda

The internal dynamics of the G77 group of developing countries are shifting rapidly on both climate change and the post-2015 international development agenda, as the interests of least developed countries increasingly diverge from those of emerging economies – with pretty far-reaching implications.

Least developed countries (LDCs) are continuing to prioritise adaptation financing in the climate context, but they’re increasingly also focused on the need for higher levels of ambition on the mitigation side of the equation – not just from developed countries, but also from emerging economies, given the proportion of global emissions that they now account for. This has already contributed to a sharp decline in G77 cohesion in the UNFCCC process.

In the development context, meanwhile, different LDCs have different priorities. Most of them continue to regard ODA levels as their key priority – ideally increasing them towards 0.7, and at a minimum stemming the real terms decline seen over the last couple of years. But this is not true of all countries: for governments such as Bangladesh, Zambia, and Malawi, ODA is arguably less important than a successful conclusion to the Doha trade round, together with opportunities in investment, migration, and remittances.  Still, across both development and climate, it is clear that equity remains a key lens through which LDCs view the world.

The key emerging economies, meanwhile – China, Brazil, India, and South Africa – are among the principal demandeurs for a pledge-and-review based approach in the climate context, hence the tensions with LDCs, as well as small island states, over levels of ambition. (Admittedly, some emerging economies – and especially China – are pursuing much more ambitious strategies at national level than their scepticism of global monitoring, reporting, and verification might suggest; but the fact remains that their and others’ voluntary pledges under the Copenhagen Accord imply long term warming of 3.6 – 5.3 degrees Celsius, rather than the globally agreed target of 2 degrees.)

But while it is clear that emerging economies regard global climate policy as a matter of fundamental national interest, it is by no means obvious that the same applies with the post-2015 development agenda. Emerging economies are less reliant than ever on ODA levels, and while many of them are now becoming aid donors in their own right, they show little interest in multilateral coordination of their efforts with those of OECD donors.

This potential lack of emerging economy interest in the post-2015 agenda creates a significant political risk. With emerging economies’ interests increasingly diverging from those of LDCs in the climate context (as well as on several trade issues), they have every reason to try to direct LDCs’ political and moral suasion towards developed countries, and away from themselves.

This in turn gives them a powerful incentive to play up a ‘North versus South’ narrative in the post-2015 context, and to aim for the idea of common but differentiated responsibilities to be as central a concept in development as it already is in climate – something that is now happening rapidly in post-2015 debates in New York, where the tone of discussions is becoming increasingly polarised.

The risk of such an approach, of course, is that it could lead to the post-2015 agenda becoming seriously bogged down amid a mood of mutual recrimination. But it is not clear that this would come at a significant opportunity cost to emerging economies, given that there appears to be little that they want from the agenda. On the other hand, as noted, it might help to ease LDC pressure on them to shift positions on climate or trade. Cynical? Sure – though no more so than the US’s earnest talk about food security while continuing to keep ethanol mandates in place, or EU farm support policy. And smart, too – at least in terms of narrow self-interest.