Monday, December 28, 2009
Blame China, not the US, for Copenhagen
If this is how China intends to use its power, then we are in trouble.
COPENHAGEN was a disaster. That much is agreed. But the truth about what happened is in danger of being lost amid the spin and inevitable recriminations. The truth is this: China wrecked the talks, intentionally humiliated US President Barack Obama, and insisted on an awful ''deal'' so Western leaders would walk away carrying the blame. I was in the room and saw it happen.
China's strategy was simple: block the open negotiations for two weeks, and then ensure that the closed-door deal made it look as if the West had failed the world's poor once again. And sure enough, the aid agencies, civil society movements and environmental groups all took the bait. The failure was ''the inevitable result of rich countries refusing adequately and fairly to shoulder their overwhelming responsibility'', said Christian Aid. ''Rich countries have bullied developing nations,'' fumed Friends of the Earth.
All very predictable, but the opposite of the truth. Even The Guardian's George Monbiot (The Age 23/12) made the mistake of singly blaming Obama. But I saw Obama fighting desperately to salvage a deal, and the Chinese delegate saying ''no'', over and over again.
Here's what actually went on as heads of state from two dozen countries met behind closed doors. Obama was at the table for several hours, sitting between Gordon Brown and Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. Probably only about 50 or 60 people were in the room. I was attached to a delegation whose head of state was also present for most of the time.
What I saw was profoundly shocking. Chinese Premier Wen Jinbao did not deign to attend the meetings personally, instead sending a second-tier official to sit opposite Obama. The snub was obvious and brutal, as was the practical implication: several times, the world's most powerful heads of state were forced to wait around as the Chinese delegate went off to make telephone calls to his ''superiors''.
To those who would blame Obama and rich countries in general, know this: it was China's representative who insisted that industrialised country targets, previously agreed as an 80 per cent cut by 2050, be taken out of the deal. ''Why can't we even mention our own targets?'' demanded a furious German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Kevin Rudd was annoyed enough to bang his microphone. China bet, correctly, that Obama would get the blame for the accord's lack of ambition.
China, backed at times by India, then proceeded to take out all the numbers that mattered. A 2020 peaking yearin global emissions, essential to restrain temperatures to 2 degrees, was removed and replaced by woolly language suggesting that emissions should peak ''as soon as possible''. The long-term target, of global 50 per cent cuts by 2050, was also excised. No one else, perhaps with the exception of India and Saudi Arabia, wanted this to happen. I am certain that had the Chinese not been in the room, we would have left Copenhagen with a deal that would have had champagne corks popping in every corner of the world.
China was in an extremely strong negotiating position. It didn't need a deal. Western leaders, in particular, and also presidents Lula of Brazil, Zuma of South Africa, Calderon of Mexico and others, were desperate for a positive outcome. Obama needed a strong deal perhaps more than anyone. The US had confirmed the offer of $100 billion to developing countries for adaptation, put serious cuts on the table for the first time (17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020), and was prepared to up its offer.
Above all, Obama needed to be able to demonstrate to the Senate that he could deliver China in any global climate regulation framework, so conservative senators could not argue that US carbon cuts would further advantage Chinese industry. With mid-term elections looming, Obama knew that this would be probably the only opportunity to go to climate change talks with a strong mandate.
This further strengthened China's hand, as did the lack of civil society political pressure on either China or India. Campaign groups never blame developing countries for failure. The Indians, in particular, have become past masters at co-opting the language of equity (''equal rights to the atmosphere'') in the service of planetary suicide - and leftish campaigners and commentators are hoist with their own petard.
With the deal gutted, the heads of state session concluded with a final battle as the Chinese delegate insisted on removing the 1.5-degree target so beloved of the small island states and low-lying nations that have most to lose from rising seas. Maldives President Mohammed Nasheed, supported by British Prime Minister Brown, fought valiantly to save this crucial number. ''How can you ask my country to go extinct?'' Nasheed demanded. The Chinese delegate feigned great offence - and the number stayed, but surrounded by language that makes it all but meaningless. The deed was done.
Copenhagen was much worse than just another bad deal: it illustrated a profound shift in global geopolitics. This is fast becoming China's century, yet its leadership has displayed that multilateral environmental governance is not only not a priority, but is viewed as a hindrance to the new superpower's freedom of action.
I left Copenhagen more despondent than I have felt in a long time. After all the hope and all the hype, the mobilisation of thousands, a wave of optimism crashed against the rock of global power politics, fell back, and drained away. GUARDIAN. By Mark Lynas, author of Six Degrees: Our future on a hotter planet, is a British environmentalist who attended the summit as adviser to the Maldives President.