Did China wreck the Copenhagen deal?

Written by Julen Madariaga on December 29th, 2009

The summit of Copenhagen has inspired some hot debate on the media, for the most part more related to international politics than to climate change. Some spectacular pieces like Mark Lynas’ on the Guardian have been followed by more moderate opinions, like those appeared on Danwei and Inside Out, trying to understand the roles of China and US in this affair.

But of all I have read on the subject, the best information around is still to be found on the Shanghai Scrap blog. He reminds us that climate change is not and cannot be the first priority for the government and the people of China today. It is an "uptown" concern, completely foreign to those who are still worrying whether their drinking water contains lead, or whether they will need a gas mask to breathe the Beijing air tomorrow.

But back to the question: Did China really wreck the Copenhagen deal? In other words, was there really a deal ready to be signed and China unexpectedly rejected it, ruining the heroic efforts of the Western World led by president Obama?

What the hell happened in Copenhagen

Have you noticed that, when there is something really important in stake, governments organize summits as small as possible to get a meaningful deal, and only reluctantly they accept new participants in the G groups? The climate summits are just the opposite, everyone is invited, carbon footprint and all, the more the merrier. The World has become so multilateral today… especially when multilateralism is in our own interest.

Climate change is always a great subject for politicking, because the success in the negotiations or the problems arising from the failures will not be felt during the political life of the protagonists. It is one of those subjects where the only real measure of success is the perception of the home public immediately after the meeting. And clever politicians don’t let the opportunity pass to fabricate a good story.

For the Obama administration the objective of the negotiations can be summarized as: ensuring a deal is signed sufficiently meaningless to cause little problems with the industrial lobbies, and sufficiently powerful that the climate change enthusiasts are satisfied. Since this is obviously impossible, there is a plan B: ensure that whatever happens, it is somebody else’s fault. This is where China makes an excellent partner.

Partly for the reasons given in the Shanghai Scrap posts, and partly because it is not a democracy and it can control the information circulating internally, China is much less worried about the Copenhagen game than Obama. Free of internal pressure and faced with very mild international pressure, Chinese leaders will logically reject any deal that involves a sacrifice for their country. They will also neglect to give a coherent explanation in the language of the international media, offering a great target for post-Copenhagen accusations.

Now, I know Obama’s ambassador is not not an expert in China, but I can’t believe he was so incompetent to ignore the facts above. Obama himself was in China a month ago, and it is impossible that he didn’t know the obvious: that China was never going to sign an agreement forcing her to accept international inspectors with access to virtually every strategic industry, and with the power to expose to the World and to the Chinese public all the weaknesses of the Chinese system.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say that China and US position was pre-arranged between Obama and Hu, but I think the American delegation, during and after the visit to China have been more intelligent than what most observers imagine.

Ever since the times of Kyoto, the US was at the head of the evil carbon emitters. Obama had to make a difference with his predecessor, and for the moment he has already worked a miracle: without making any major concession, the US have now become the World Champions of climate change policies.

In the meantime, the EU countries, the only ones that take this climate change thing seriously, are again pushed into the background because of their lack of credible leadership… and Obama, the clever American, has made the most of it for himself and for his country.

And in the meantime, the climate is changing…

One of the funniest accusations I have read in the media after the Copenhagen summit is that China has prevented the developed countries from signing a deal to limit their own emissions. This is so stupid that it could make it into a China Daily headline. How can China prevent the US/EU/Japan from signing a deal among themselves to reduce their own emissions?

No, seriously, if we are going to act against climate change, I would propose: what about reaching an agreement among the developed countries first, like we did for so many things before, and put it into practice even without China?

Yes, I know, to make a carbon reduction effective, all countries should participate. But the same could be said of the GATT/WTO and many other deals at the time, and this didn’t stop us from signing it and push China into it much later. Once the developed World is united, it is always much easier to lobby together for the respect of some standards, or to impose sanctions to non compliant countries.

But why do all that, when it is easy to content the public with less?

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Comments so far ↓

  1. Dec
    29
    1:31
    PM
    maxiewawa

    Nice call, let’s hope the leaders of the free world read this blog!

    [Reply to this comment]

  2. Dec
    29
    11:05
    PM
    George

    I am not a big Chineese fan…but I agree completely with this… this farce called “Global Warming” is just a tool to control developing nations from overtaking the west. China should have openly told the west to shut up and get lost. Nevertheless, good!

    [Reply to this comment]

  3. Dec
    29
    11:17
    PM
    Xujun

    Well done, Uln. Your last section cracked me up - what a great call to the developed nations!

    [Reply to this comment]

  4. Dec
    30
    7:27
    AM
    Royce Ng

    Is it just me, or do the U.S ambassador to China’s fatalistic comments about trying to understand the country remind anyone of Polanski’s movie with the final moral line, ‘Forget it kid, it’s Chinatown.’

    [Reply to this comment]

  5. Dec
    30
    11:10
    AM
    Xiefeilaga

    Though Mark Lynas’ accusations seem a bit far-fetched, there are some factors at work here which necessitate a closer look at them.
    Though China can control information, the Chinese media actually made a big deal about Copenhagen. Every newspaper did a major spread about climate change and carbon reduction, and “emissions reduction” (减排) is now a key term in propaganda lingo.
    The other factor is Hu Jintao’s emerging “theory” that I guess will be eventually incorporated into the party charter alongside Mao Zedong thought, Deng Xiaoping’s “Four Modernizations” and Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents”. It doesn’t have a catchy name yet, but he’s released some policy statements about China taking on a more proactive and “responsible role” in international governance.
    The developed nations, especially America, can’t take home a deal these days that restricts themselves without restricting China. That’s just not politically viable right now. China, on the other hand, doesn’t want to come away looking like the stubborn foot-dragger, especially considering the recent propaganda talking points.
    Did they intentionally scuttle the talks, I honestly don’t know. In fact, I’m still waiting for solid confirmation that Mark Lynas was actually in the room, as he claims. But now, China can continue it’s show of investing in clean-tech, and tell her people, “well, these guys failed to reach a deal, but we’re going ahead anyway”.

    [Reply to this comment]

  6. Dec
    31
    7:26
    AM
    Uln

    True, information on global warming has not been censored, and most Chinese are aware of it. The impression I have is Chinese authorities havent felt the need to control content on this because it is not a conflictive subject: and as far as I know, there has been no protests against carbon emissions. Also the extreme attitudes in the West, where people are speaking of their “carbon footprint” everytime they book a plane ticket, this does not exist in China.

    In any case, back to the main point: did China wreck the deal or not? Obviously, you can see this from both sides, and you could say that the non-deal benefits Chinese industry as much as it does the USA industry.

    The difference is that the USA is a very rich and developed country and it has already sent all the emissions it needed in the past, and I think its place is with European countries, as a leader of the carbon emissions reduction. And anything less than that, and their pointing at China to say “hey, it is their fault” is not the leadership position that Obama was representing…

    Not politically viable right now, you say. Yes, and it was also not politically viable in Kyoto, and I am guessing the same will be true in 10 years time. Great. In the end, America is a superpower and it will do what it pleases. That’s why it’s so annoying that it’s always Americans who pose as the Champions of carbon reduction policies, from Al Gore to Obama/Clinton, to the hollywood catastrophe movies. Seriously, there are 1000 reasons for us to expect more from Obama than from Wen, whatever the theories of 减排 might be. Gore was in my uni last year doing a conference, WenJiabao was not.

    PS. Hey, is that GV Swahili I got in the incoming links? Cool!

    [Reply to this comment]

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