Sat, Dec 26, 2009 - Page 9 News List

How intransigent China wrecked climate talks

Brutal power politics made sure that the deal on the environment at Copenhagen was gutted — and the finger of blame was pointed at the West


Copenhagen was a disaster. That much is agreed. But the truth about what actually happened is in danger of being lost amid the spin and inevitable mutual recriminations. The truth is this: China wrecked the talks, intentionally humiliated US President Barack Obama, and insisted on an awful “deal” so Western leaders would walk away carrying the blame. How do I know this? Because I was in the room and saw it happen.

China’s strategy was simple: Block the open negotiations for two weeks, and then ensure that the closed-door deal made it look as if the West had failed the world’s poor once again. And sure enough, the aid agencies, civil society movements and environmental groups all took the bait. The failure was “the inevitable result of rich countries refusing adequately and fairly to shoulder their overwhelming responsibility,” Christian Aid said.

“Rich countries have bullied developing nations,” fumed Friends of the Earth International.

All very predictable, but the complete opposite of the truth. Even the columnist George Monbiot, writing in Tuesday’s Guardian, made the mistake of singly blaming US President Barack Obama. But I saw Obama fighting desperately to salvage a deal, and the Chinese delegate saying “no,” over and over again. Monbiot even approvingly quoted the Sudanese delegate Lumumba Di-Aping, who denounced the Copenhagen accord as “a suicide pact, an incineration pact, in order to maintain the economic dominance of a few countries.”

Sudan behaved at the talks as a puppet of China; one of a number of countries that relieved the Chinese delegation of having to fight its battles in open sessions. It was a perfect stitch-up. China gutted the deal behind the scenes, and then left its proxies to savage it in public.

Here’s what actually went on late on Dec. 18, as heads of state from two dozen countries met behind closed doors: Obama was at the table for several hours, sitting between British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. The Danish prime minister chaired, and on his right sat UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Probably only about 50 or 60 people, including the heads of state, were in the room. I was attached to one of the delegations, whose head of state was also present for most of the time.

What I saw was profoundly shocking. Chinese Premier Wen Jinbao (溫家寶) did not deign to attend the meetings personally, instead sending a second-tier official in the country’s foreign ministry to sit opposite Obama. The diplomatic snub was obvious, as was the practical implication: Several times during the session, the world’s most powerful heads of state were forced to wait around as the Chinese delegate went off to make telephone calls to his “superiors.”

To those who would blame Obama and rich countries in general, know this: It was China’s representative who insisted that industrialized country targets, previously agreed as an 80 percent cut by 2050, be taken out of the deal.

“Why can’t we even mention our own targets?” furious German Chancellor Angela Merkel demanded.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was annoyed enough to bang his microphone. Brazil’s representative, too, pointed out the illogicality of China’s position. Why should rich countries not announce even this unilateral cut? The Chinese delegate said no, and I watched, aghast, as Merkel threw up her hands in despair and conceded the point. Now we know why — because China bet, correctly, that Obama would get the blame for the Copenhagen accord’s lack of ambition.

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