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?