Copenhagen: the post-mortem

Following the announcement of the Copenhagen Accord, John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace UK, declared Copenhagen “a crime scene”, with the world leaders who brokered the deal “guilty men and women.” Every crime scene demands a post-mortem, and in this entry, I’ll attempt to file a first report. I’ll warn you now: some scenes may disturb.

climate crime2

I was in Copenhagen for the duration of the UN climate talks as part of the UK Youth Delegation (you can see my earlier coverage of the conference on the UKYD blog, here). It was a non-stop, sleep-deprived, and confusing fortnight, with many twists and turns as events unfolded. The first week began with a leaked draft text that appeared to kill off the Kyoto Protocol and penalise developing nations unfairly; to which the G77 bloc of developing nations responded with their own draft text, which was also leaked. Matters escalated with impassioned speeches, walk-outs, and repeated instances of the talks breaking down. As world leaders arrived in their droves and debate reached a crescendo, the possibility of the talks collapsing entirely suddenly became very real — a possibility which only receded with some last-minute interventions.

All of which made for exciting viewing, and some excitable journalism. But it became harder and harder over the two weeks to see what was really going on at the talks; to discern beneath the daily froth the deeper currents of power politics. In particular, the final days of the conference — when the Copenhagen Accord was thrashed out behind closed doors with few NGO observers allowed in — is proving difficult to piece together. Who was truly privy to the writing of the Accord? Who compromised, and on what? Who was responsible for gutting it of its crucial commitments? In short, whodunnit?

It seems that everyone, whether politician seeking exoneration or pundit reaching for explanation, has a different story. President Obama got the chance to shape immediate impressions of the deal through dint of a press conference which circumvented the UN negotiations (meaning that some delegates heard about the Accord through BBC news first, rather than in plenary). Despite this, he did not seem overly keen to spin the deal his way — claiming it to be a “meaningful and historic”, but acknowledging that it would not be enough. The head of the Chinese delegation, Xie Zhenhua, issued a more propagandist statement — “The meeting has had a positive result, everyone should be happy” (which reminded me of Margaret Thatcher’s injunction to journalists asking about the Falklands War: “Simply rejoice!”).

Meanwhile, the Times, somewhat bizarrely, decided to pin the failure of Copenhagen in part on small island states (“Any process that makes a star of the teams from Tuvalu and the Maldives is bound to balk progress”). Western NGOs, on the other hand, had no doubts that the developed nations were the key culprits; Greenpeace International’s website, for example, argued that “the blame for failure mostly lies with the rich industrialised world… in particular, the US failed to take any real leadership and dragged the talks down.” Youth, too, blamed Obama; after all, it was in him whom many young people, myself included, had vested such hopes for a successful treaty at Copenhagen. At a demonstration I attended the night the deal was announced, many young protesters carried pictures of the President with the words ‘Climate Shame’ pinned to them, and chanted anti-Obama slogans.

But as the conference ended and recriminations began to fly, different stories emerged. Upon returning to the UK, Ed Miliband and Gordon Brown both issued surprisingly undiplomatic statements criticizing a small group of outspoken developing countries (identified in private as Sudan, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Cuba) for refusing to sign the Accord, thereby causing the UN to merely ‘note’ it rather than adopt it. More significantly, they blamed China for weakening the provisions in the Accord: removing the crucial emissions targets for the world to cut 50% of its emissions, and industrialised nations 80%, by 2050. At first this seemed to me to be just too convenient. Surely this was just another case of blame-China-syndrome, akin to the frequently-repeated factoid that since China builds two coal plants a week, there’s little use us Brits doing anything.

But then other reports began to corroborate their account of events. John Vidal, usually highly sympathetic in his coverage of developing countries wrote in the Guardian that the Chinese delegation had been instrumental in removing emissions targets from the final Accord (“ China doesn’t like numbers”).  Then environmental writer Mark Lynas, who had observed events first-hand as part of the Maldives’ delegation, pointed his finger squarely at China, claiming it had forced the removal of both 2050 emissions targets (a 50% cut for the world, an 80% cut for developed nations). “The truth is this”, he fumed: “China wrecked the talks, intentionally humiliated Barack Obama, and insisted on an awful ‘deal’ so western leaders would walk away carrying the blame.” Strong words, and still more so coming from a respected climate campaigner. Is Lynas, too, simply reaching for “familiar villains”, as media commentator Tim Holmes has it? Or in the words of David Wearing, author of the Democrat’s Diary, unwittingly “relaying Western spin”?

I went over to ChinaDialogue seeking an alibi for the Chinese Government. But there I found other witnesses only too willing to pin the blame on the People’s Republic. Isabel Hilton, ChinaDialogue’s director, pulls few punches: “China played a heavily obstructive role”. The reporter Cao Haili writes that “China has bought some time” by resisting a stronger deal, even though “the Chinese government knows that eventually they will have to go in that direction.” The project’s development manager, Tan Copsey, argues: “The United States and China, the world’s largest historical contributor to climate change and the world’s largest current emitter, were at the heart of the failure to reach a more substantial agreement.” Meanwhile, Julian Wong, author of the excellent Green Leap Forward blog, reckons that China has done pretty well out of the Copenhagen Accord: “My unofficial final score ends up with China ahead… World 3.5, China 4.5.”

Did China show any flexibility in its stance? Yes: the US wrung an important concession from it on the international monitoring of emissions. This is significant, because as academic John Lee writes,  international teams of inspectors “…would see first hand and report back how China’s 45 million local officials remain the most formidable obstacle to improving transparency in China’s sprawling economic structure… Developed countries suspect that China will receive plaudits and concessions from any future carbon emissions regime without actually keeping its promises.” Also significant was the promise the Chinese government unveiled prior to Copenhagen — that it would cut carbon emissions relative to economic growth by 40% to 45% by 2020 compared with 2005 levels. There has been some debate as to whether this really represents a deviation from business-as-usual, since China has already been improving its energy efficiency by similar magnitudes over the past decade. Regardless of this, the continued compliance of local officials remains crucial in achieving this, and it’s not a given.

It isn’t only Western countries who are castigating China. Ali Yang from Greenpeace China comments that, whilst China generally allies itself with the G77, Copenhagen gave oxygen to the “cry of the most vulnerable developing countries for China to take more responsibility”.

Clearly, Copenhagen has revealed the limits of Beijing’s willingness to act on climate change: the Government doesn’t want to be bound by legal agreements and certainly isn’t prepared to set absolute emissions caps. Jonathan Watts recounts the words of a negotiator from an Asian nation: “China champions the position of the G77… But actually their position is very similar to that of the US. They are both major emitters who are refusing to accept binding consequences.”

For the past decade, the Western climate movement has demonised George W Bush’s America as the true climate criminals. It was a worthy target and good fun at the time, but an easy hit compared to the far trickier problem of the People’s Republic. Whilst the US continues to offer a pitiful 4% emissions target for 2020, it will rightly bear the brunt of international criticism. But how far will we also be prepared to criticise China?

Western human rights groups have rarely minced their words when it comes to Tibet, Chinese internet censorship or Tiananmen Square. By contrast, climate campaigners have so far felt compromised when considering the problem of Chinese emissions; after all, up to a quarter of them stem from manufacturing goods for the West. We have found it politic to focus our criticisms instead on Western governments, partly for sound ethical reasons – the West bears historical responsibility for climate damages already inflicted, and China has every right to develop – but also because we have little clue how to effectively influence China. True, most of the big green NGOs now have branches in Beijing or Shanghai; a native Chinese environmental movement has existed for some 15 years, though it remains subservient to government; and ChinaDialogue does a good job of stimulating discussion between campaigners. But all this seems a little incommensurate with the scale of the challenge.

I have no answers to this problem, and I’d welcome comments from those who do.  I’ll leave the last words to the BBC’s Richard Black, who frames the dilemma well:

“Having seen the deal emerge that the real leaders of China, India and the other large developing countries evidently wanted, how will those countries now be treated? How do you campaign in China?… The situation is especially demanding for those organisations that have traditionally supported the developing world on a range of issues against what they see as the west’s damaging dominance. After Copenhagen, there is no ‘developing world’ — there are several. Responding to this new world order is a challenge for campaign groups, as it will be for politicians in the old centres of world power.”

  • Adam Corner

    really informative piece Guy, thanks — as you say, despite the blaming of China seeming to be at first the predictable, ritual response of US and Europe, the more voices (and independnet voices too) that have emerged, the more it looks like China’s political manuevering threw a gigantic spanner in the works. Its a more complicated pitch, but progressive voices need to start saying that while China’s current emissions are to a great extent coming from making the rest of the world’s stuff, political obstructionism and superpower stonewalling are no more acceptable for China as they were for America during the Bush years…

  • Pingback: The Carsonian Revolution » Climate Safety