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


China, backed at times by India, then proceeded to take out all the numbers that mattered. A 2020 peaking year in global emissions, essential to restrain temperatures to 2ºC, was removed and replaced by woolly language suggesting that emissions should peak “as soon as possible.”

The long-term target, of global 50 percent cuts by 2050, was also excised. No one else, perhaps with the exceptions of India and Saudi Arabia, wanted this to happen. I am certain that had the Chinese not been in the room, we would have left Copenhagen with a deal that had environmentalists popping champagne corks in every corner of the world.

So how did China to pull off this coup? First, it was in an extremely strong negotiating position. China didn’t need a deal.

As one developing country foreign minister said to me: “The Athenians had nothing to offer to the Spartans.”

On the other hand, Western leaders in particular — but also presidents Lula da Silva of Brazil, Jacob Zuma of South Africa, Felipe Calderon of Mexico and many others — were desperate for a positive outcome. Obama needed a strong deal perhaps more than anyone. The US had confirmed the offer of US$100 billion to developing countries for adaptation, put serious cuts on the table for the first time (17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020), and was obviously prepared to up its offer.

Above all, Obama needed to be able to demonstrate to the Senate that he could deliver China in any global climate regulation framework, so conservative senators could not argue that US carbon cuts would further advantage Chinese industry. With midterm elections looming, Obama and his staff also knew that Copenhagen would be probably their only opportunity to go to climate change talks with a strong mandate.

This further strengthened China’s negotiating hand, as did the complete lack of civil society political pressure on either China or India. Campaign groups never blame developing countries for failure; this is an iron rule that is never broken. The Indians, in particular, have become past masters at co-opting the language of equity (“equal rights to the atmosphere”) in the service of planetary suicide — and leftish campaigners and commentators are hoist with their own petard.

With the deal gutted, the heads of state session concluded with a final battle as the Chinese delegate insisted on removing the 1.5ºC target so beloved of the small island states and low-lying nations who have most to lose from rising seas. President Mohammed Nasheed of the Maldives, supported by Brown, fought to save this crucial number.

“How can you ask my country to go extinct?” demanded Nasheed. The Chinese delegate feigned great offence — and the number stayed, but surrounded by language which makes it all but meaningless. The deed was done.

All this raises the question: What is China’s game? Why did China, in the words of a UK-based analyst who also spent hours in heads of state meetings, “not only reject targets for itself, but also refuse to allow any other country to take on binding targets?”

The analyst, who has attended climate conferences for more than 15 years, concludes that China wants to weaken the climate regulation regime now “in order to avoid the risk that it might be called on to be more ambitious in a few years’ time.”

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