When China said “no”

Some observers say that China wrecked the climate negotiations at Copenhagen. But the reality is more complex, argues Cao Haili.

If climate change were only an environmental issue, there would be a far easier solution. However, the interplay of national interests that are involved – involving politics, economics and development – places multiple strains on the prospects of an international agreement.

Many observers feel that the two-week climate-change conference in Copenhagen was a disastrous failure. The Copenhagen Accord, produced in closed talks by a small number of key nations, could not have been less substantive; it fell far short of most predicted goals and lacked any legal force. At least five nations tangled over issues of transparency and legitimacy. The angry language used by their representatives on the final evening provided a farcical finale for the conference’s global audience.

There is still disagreement over what really happened in those final 48 hours. Xinhua, China’s official news agency, reported that Chinese premier Wen Jiabao was not invited to secret US-initiated talks on the evening of December 17 and early the next morning, to China’s great displeasure. India’s climate envoy Shyam Saran also raised this matter in a press conference on the afternoon of December 18.

Mark Lynas, a British journalist and member of the Maldives delegation, wrote in the Guardian that he saw at first hand how China “wrecked” closed-door talks between the leaders of 20 nations. Wen Jiabao did not attend, dispatching instead a vice-minister from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Western media reports said that Wen Jiabao, unhappy with US insistence on international verification of China’s emission reductions, refused to join president Barack Obama at the meeting, blocking the negotiations.

Ed Miliband, the British secretary of state for energy and climate, told The Guardian that China had tried to “hijack” the Copenhagen Accord. UK prime minister Gordon Brown expressed a hope that China and the United States would show “they were doing more”.

Besides the rift between China and the United States over measuring, reporting and verification (MRV), the cited evidence of China’s “wrecking” behaviour was its firm opposition to inclusion of the target of global emissions reduction of 50% on 1990 levels by 2050, with developed nations making cuts of 80%.

The reason for China’s opposition was simple: it would restrict China’s development. Given the country’s rate of development and its economic and energy structure, the target would be a tough one for it to reach. Lü Xuedu, a Chinese delegate and deputy director of the National Climate Center, pointed out that global carbon emissions in 1990 were 21 billion tonnes, so a 50% cut by 2050 would mean emissions of 10.5 billion tonnes. In 2005, China emitted 6 billion tonnes of carbon. If the current rate of development continues, those 10.5 billion tonnes might not be enough for China alone, let alone the rest of the world.

China is concerned about domestic political and economic stability. It does not want international legislation restricting its development and is unwilling to see any language that may lead to caps on its emissions.

China did not suddenly arrive at this stance. It has held to this line consistently, particularly after the Bangkok climate talks in October. At that point the European Union’s position changed, and the crux of negotiations became whether or not to stick to the twin-track system of the Bali Roadmap, or merge the two tracks. Under a twin-track arrangement, China and other developing nations are not required to commit to compulsory reductions. But if the two tracks merged, China could face much more stringent restrictions. A worsening conflict between China and the major developed nations became a new piece in the climate-change puzzle.

However, it is unrealistic to believe that without China’s opposition a binding agreement would have been reached. Take the example of the Doha Development Round of WTO negotiations, which were initiated in 2001 but are currently stalled, in which China is not one of the major players. Prior to Doha, the US and EU could remain in control. But now that era has passed: developing nations have a larger say in world affairs. Multilateral negotiations can no longer be dominated by a single nation, or even a single group of nations. This is true for trade talks, and even more so for the more complex interests involved in climate negotiations.

Even if China had not said “no”, the reduction targets that the United States – the other decisive force in climate negotiations – were able to commit to would still make an agreement hard to reach.

The climate bill passed by the House of Representatives proposes that the United States make cuts of 17% on 2005 emission levels by 2020. Against a 1990 baseline, this is around 4%. This is nowhere near the 40% cuts proposed by developing nations, and far short even of the 20% to 30% goal proposed by the EU. But the United States continues to argue that its efforts are sufficient.

The US political system does not give the president absolute decision-making power. The last two decades has seen Congress become ever more partisan and any proposed bill will face strong opposition. Currently, the US climate bill is under discussion in the senate. Senator John Kerry is an active supporter of a climate deal and made a trip to Copenhagen to campaign for one. But it will not be easy for a bitterly divided senate to pass his proposal without significant changes. Therefore, the United States was unable to put forward stronger targets at Copenhagen.

In fact, the United States was happy to see a weak accord emerge from Copenhagen. Congress is not yet ready to accept any international binding agreement. The Obama administration needs to use greater wisdom and better tactics to ensure the climate bill passes the senate in the spring. Otherwise, any commitments the US makes at negotiations are simply bad cheques.

Other richer developing nations, such as India, are also unwilling to accept caps from the developing world. The Indian environment minister Jairam Ramesh visited Beijing in August to discuss an alliance against western pressure. India’s emissions – both in total volume and per capita – are far lower than China’s, but it still has major problems in balancing development and the environment. China is not alone in opposing curbs on overall emissions.

Since Copenhagen produced a weak and non-binding political document, China bought more time for its development. But it is hard to say how long this expediency can last. International pressure on China is already building, and not just from the developed world – it also comes also from the developing nations most at risk from climate change. China’s 30-year economic miracle has come at the cost of a rapidly deteriorating environment; this has not been sustainable development. China has no cause to avoid its responsibilities, either internationally or domestically.

The negotiations, I believe, will eventually have to move towards a single track. Any agreement which does not include China and the United States – the world’s two largest emitters by volume – will not achieve any meaningful result. In one sense then, the Copenhagen Accord at least has achieved something by putting China and the US in the same boat.

Cao Haili, formerly senior reporter at Caijing magazine, is a reporter for chinadialogue.

Homepage image from The White House