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Blaming China for Copenhagen Won't Help the Climate

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Exclusive from Treehugger.

The Copenhagen Accord was a deal and not a deal, and its real implications remain uncertain. Nonetheless, thanks to fly-on-the-wall accounts by participants like Ed Milliband and Mark Lynas ("How do I know China wrecked the Copenhagen deal? I was in the room"), China's been taking heavy blame for keeping the champagne bottles corked. The country I hoped could have emerged as a promising global environmental leader may have come out looking like the world's "more assertive" environmental enemy.

Now, I was only down the hall from the room. But before we call China the bad guy of COP15, I think we need to take a good look in the mirror.

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Photo: Flickr/whitehouse

First of all, if China did indeed force the final accord in Copenhagen in its favor, that points to a failure of the international climate treaty-making process. But more importantly, even amidst a possible redrawing of the climate relations map, China's role at Copenhagen reminds us of the key issue dividing the developing and developed world: while it hurtles towards a clean tech economy, China, like other high-emitting developing nations, is laser-focused on its "right to develop." And it expects the developed world to do much more to prevent climate change. Rightly so.

China's serious
For its part, China is serious about fighting climate change, in part because it's going to make lots of money off clean technology, in part because it's concerned about energy independence and in part because it's going to be hurt by climate change as much as any country. Its pledge to cut energy intensity from 2005 levels by 40 percent by 2020 is evidence of that commitment.

In his address to the summit, Wen Jiabao struck some of the most promising notes possible, describing China's own actions as a matter of responsibility, and as unconditional and ambitious: "This is a voluntary action China has taken in the light of its national circumstances. We have not attached any condition to the target, nor have we linked it to the target of any other country. We will honor our word with real action. Whatever outcome this conference may produce, we will be fully committed to achieving and even exceeding the target."

Economic growth first doesn't preclude clean growth
But Beijing's main focus remains its continued economic development. It sees that growth as crucial for the health of the people and also the Party, which knows that economic slowdown could imperil it. How will global warming shape that expansion? Notwithstanding its heavy reliance on coal, China's economy is already growing cleaner, and not only for economic and strategic reasons (China is arguably able to harness its rapidly growing economy and government to go green faster than the US). Primarily the effects of air and water pollution, not of climate change, are driving citizens to the kind of anger and protest that could endanger the Party's rule. (If we're looking to blame the Chinese government for bad, unsustainable behavior, how about its restrictions on freedom of speech and information, for starters?)

China's got other interests on the table too: protecting its economy from the challenges of rapid climate change adaptation, staying competitive in energy technology, demanding that the world's biggest historical emitters make their own commitments first, and maintaining its "national sovereignty."

Transparency: check
I'll address the last concern first, as its a controversial but relatively insignificant one in this context. National sovereignty was always a touchy subject for the Middle Kingdom, given its delicate history with the West and its dubious statistics. For much of the summit it created the biggest sticking point: would China ever allow the world to independently verify its emissions reductions, thereby ensuring that the rest of the world's carbon cuts are not for nothing?

That's not much of a sticking point anymore, and it may have only been a phantom problem. With the Copenhagen Accord, Beijing backed off its public stance against transparency and permitted "international consultation and analysis." Few doubted this would happen; Beijing and Washington had already laid the groundwork for this kind of transparency during during Obama's Beijing visit in November. China's Copenhagen concession -- and its final, crucial agreement to include its carbon cuts in the appendix to the Accord -- gave the summit some luster of success.

But real success lies ahead. Will Beijing's concession be enough to convince the Senate to pass climate legislation? If it is -- and that's still a big if, especially after the fragile health care win -- Obama's last-minute deal-brokering won't have been in vain, and China will deserve some credit for reassuring the rest of the world that it's serious.

China Sabotaged Copenhagen? Really? Wen?
Given China's remaining concerns -- protecting economic growth, adapting to climate change, staying competitive in energy technology, and demanding equitable cuts -- it's not hard to see why China, according to reports, blocked targets for its own emissions, a 50 percent reduction by 2050.

But why did China also block a target proposed by Angela Merkel for developed nations to trim emissions by 80 percent by 2050? Perhaps China wants to ensure it will get to be one of those developed nations by then. Perhaps more relevant, as Wang Yi, an expert at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, told Reuters, such goals are empty unless rich countries vow to make steeper cuts in emissions and agree on how to parcel out the remaining share of the global emissions "budget."

"The coming year of negotiations will be very demanding and nothing will be easy to solve," he said. "We need to be clear about how the 50 percent would be shared out, otherwise it's an empty slogan, and now we need actions, not posturing."

The refusal of these more ambitious cuts, as Martin Khor writes in the Guardian, was reasonable. "Together, they imply that developing countries would have to cut their emissions overall by about 20% in absolute terms and at least 60% in per capita terms. By 2050, developed countries with high per capita emissions - such as the US - would be allowed to have two to five times higher per capita emission levels than developing countries." That would also, he notes, "have locked in a most unfair sharing of the remaining global carbon budget as it would have allowed the developed countries to get off free from their historical responsibility and their carbon debt. They would have been allocated the rights to a large amount of "carbon space", historically and in the future, without being given the obligation and responsibility to undertake adequate emission cuts nor to make adequate financial and technology transfers to developing countries."

As for the various controversies and tensions that arose during last minute back room -- and perhaps behind-the-back -- negotiations at Copenhagen, which played out, as Joe Romm notes, like a Shakespearean Comedy of Errors style "wrong door" escapade, I don't think discussing that or casting blame is productive.

Of course, the chaos that took place behind the scenes at Copenhagen is not insignificant in the context of international relations. But whether the Danish sabotaged proceedings by convening closed-door meetings, or if Obama felt snubbed by Wen or the other way around, as a Xinhua piece indicates, the take-away is that tensions in talks like these seemed as inevitable as miscommunication and poor planning, of which much was in abundance.

Ultimately, it was President Obama who seemed to keep talks alive. "I don't want to mess around with this anymore, I want to just talk with Premier Wen," he reportedly told a member of his staff as talks seemed to be devolving into an Upstairs-Downstairs farce (see also the President's own account, from an interview with News Hour, at Dot Earth). Obama's relationships with world leaders and his determination to get them to agree to something not only prevented back-tracking but kept intact some measure of good will. We need as much of that as possible as we continue trying to forge a climate agreement.

Climate fairness
But Obama's success only highlights the U.S.'s failure in general, which will become the bigger sticking point in climate talks: when will the U.S. (along with other Western nations) step up its own climate change game? Even now, 20 percent of the world's population living in industrialized countries contributes 70-80 percent of all the GHG emissions that are leading to climate change. In October President Obama acknowledged that given their historical impact, developed nations should shoulder more responsibility than poorer ones, providing them with green financing and technology transfer -- key pieces in the puzzle before countries like China can feel comfortable with serious cuts.

As Antonio Hill of Oxfam said earlier this year,

We have reached a crossroads, and rich countries get to choose the route we all take.One route leads us out of today's economic and climate crises and towards a low carbon future. The other spells disaster for hundreds of millions of people across the globe.

So what did Obama bring to Copenhagen? He offered cuts of 3-4% from 1990 levels (part of an average 11-19% overall reduction by other developed nations) by 2020. In fact, entering Copenhagen, no country seemed prepared to do anything near what scientists say is adequate to help combat climate change (cuts of 40% by 2020).

That makes the question of whether China held Copenhagen hostage moot. There was little to hold hostage, and no ransom to be won.

Missing: technology transfer
Okay, maybe there was a ransom, at least a monetary one. Thanks to a last-minute pledge by the US, the Copenhagen Accord lays out the prospect of a $100 billion fund for developing countries. Even if that's not enough money, as some have contended, and even if the details on financing remain elusive, the fund is a sign of progress, and is commensurate with the responsibilities of developed nations.

But the accord only pays vague lip service to the related component of technology transfer, an element in which China has expressed much more interest. Though it wants the legal right to climate financing, Beijing has been careful not to seem greedy or needy. Its real priority is advancing its technology and learning capabilities through international exchange. That needn't necessarily be an invitation to piracy, as many in the West worry. But assuaging the fears of Western politicians and business leaders and striking the right balance between sharing and competition will be crucial if the West is to convince China and other high-emitting developing countries that they can take on more serious carbon cuts.

As Wang Ke, a climate change policy expert at Renmin University in Beijing, told Reuters, "China and other developing countries will feel the negotiations to come will be equally tough as we get into the details ... The funding commitments from the developed countries are still vague, and technology transfer issues were barely mentioned (in the Copenhagen accord)."

Still, he said, "The agreement reached was better than total collapse."

Copenhagen's lessons (for now): too much "messing around"
Ultimately, I left Copenhagen without bitterness or blame, but a head-numbing sense of confusion and conundrum. From the pile of debris left behind, I took these lessons:

- The world treated COP15 like a trade treaty, not a peace treaty. Every country, not just China and the U.S. came to the conference to debate on terms and needs specific to their own country, even though the effects of global warming are distributed globally. That points not neccessarily to a problem with the process -- after all, this is the United Nations, and a meeting of every nation -- but an economic and philosophical challenge. As the journal Nature put it, "anyone who uses energy from fossil fuels at a price that does not account for climate-related costs of greenhouse-gas emissions is also 'winning' at someone else's expense. Winners and losers may be the same people, but usually they are not." How do we legislate among them -- or rather, how will they legislate among themselves?

This may also be a question of how much faith we invest in the UNFCCC process. We need to start investing that faith, and the effort that comes with it, into pushing domestic policies that lay the groundwork for a treaty next time that can work well with existing policies and needs while exploring other multilateral avenues for the future. If the world needs the biggest emitters, not every country, to sign onto cuts to launch a global low-carbon economy, perhaps much of the work on a climate treaty should be left up to talks at the G20 or the Major Economies Forum, with the UNFCCC playing a follow-up role.

- However powerful China may now be -- or however powerful people wish to perceive it --the most powerful actor on the climate stage is the United States, led by President Obama. His relations with world leaders and the trust he has built up in the climate arena, notwithstanding the limited outcome of Copenhagen, will continue to prove valuable in future talks. But his role in the future will be determined in no small part by the success of climate legislation in the U.S. If he can succeed at convincing the United States that a low-carbon economy is a sustainable economy in every sense of the word, he will be able to make the U.S. a leader at climate talks and assure an American economic advantage.

- The fragile sense of trust exposed in the aftermath of Copenhagen cuts both ways. For a good-faith deal to come about, the West and China specifically both need to work on improving not just their relationship, but more fundamentally, how they perceive the other. The summit has illustrated China's ascendance to world power, even as it reinforces the country's role as leader of the developing world. We owe it to China to keep the pressure on, as they are the world's largest polluter, and maintain big expectations commensurate with their strength. But we also need to keep reality in mind, recognizing not only the country's limitations but its suspicions that the developed world wants to limit China's growth.

Similarly, China's leaders need to recognize that Western leaders are not just spouting rhetoric when it comes to climate action, but have partly acknowledged their obligations, and see the developed world's participation, however limited it may need to be, as a delicate prerequisite to their own efforts.

- The leaders of the developing world have a lot to do. The developed world has to do more. If the US and rest of the developed world can cap emissions and innovate to meet new standards, they will not only be addressing their historical responsibilities and kick-starting a global low-carbon economy. They could well be assuring their own economic futures. New standards would lead to technologies they could sell to rapidly developing countries like China, which will need such solutions as their own standards increase.

To paraphrase President Obama, we need American and developed world lawmakers to stop messing around with this, and do something.

In any case, blaming China now for destroying the world won't help future negotiations, and it certainly won't change the world's general inaction. It won't help the world get on track to low-carbon economies, nor will it dissuade China from its mission to lead the world in clean development.

But passing around blame could distract us from the crux of the climate treaty issue. Forget how much we can trust the climate efforts of China and the rest of the developing world. How much can it trust ours?

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