What happened at Copenhagen and why China didn’t cooperate

The Friday Times (Pakistan)

Imaduddin Ahmed | Jan 8, 2010

With China projected by Goldman Sachs to overtake the US as the largest economy by 2030, the way for the US to remain the most dominant force in global politics will be by having China sign itself into US-led global governance structures

The generally accepted view among the scientific community is that human activity, through greenhouse emissions (mainly in the form of carbon dioxide), has contributed significantly to global warming.

Global warming isn’t irrelevant. According to the Nobel-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Pakistan can expect floods and rock avalanches from the Himalayas within the next couple of decades, accompanied by increased outbreaks of malaria and diarrheal disease, followed by droughts as the flow of glacial water into the Indus system recedes; increased deaths due to heatwaves; increased cholera outbreaks as coastal water temperatures increase; and massive middle-class unemployment as Karachi, Pakistan’s main economic centre, floods. Meanwhile the US Department of Agriculture predicts widespread desertification in Balochistan and the NWFP. The rest of the world will suffer similarly.

Why haven’t world leaders unilaterally rushed to curb carbon dioxide emissions?

Europe and Japan have, in fact, made substantial progress. The new Japanese Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama, has pledged to cut Japanese greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions 25% below 1990 levels within 10 years. The European Environment Agency, meanwhile, boasts that the EU-15 will have reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 13% below 1990 levels by 2012, more than the 8% required by the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

The world’s two largest CO2 emitters, China and the United States, could do more. What stops them from doing so is that limiting national carbon dioxide emissions is associated with decreasing national economic competitiveness. The 1997 US Senate refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on the grounds that developing countries (China and India) would not also be legally bound by a treaty that would adversely affect the signatories’ economies.

The Chinese government believes it cannot reduce emissions without compromising on industrialising and developing economically. China, as well as India (the fourth highest emitter of CO2), rightly assert that they have emitted far less cumulatively than states that have industrialised in order to develop. As a matter of equity, China demands that industrialised nations, especially the US, should transfer technology and funds to cover the cost of reducing CO2 emissions. Further, with their populations exceeding a billion, China and India want emissions to be measured on a per person basis, rather than on a per country basis.

The Copenhagen climate change conference in December was an attempt to extend the commitments made by nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol beyond 2012. It was also an attempt to get developing nations, namely China and India, to commit to reductions. It wasn’t going to be easy.

What happened at Copenhagen and why

Sudanese delegate Lumumba Di-Aping articulated how much of the world came to regard the Copenhagen accord: “A suicide pact, an incineration pact, in order to maintain the economic dominance of a few countries.”

In the end, an unsubstantive treaty was the result of China’s power-play to undermine US President Barack Obama’s credentials as a global statesman, undermine the US’ role in multilateral leadership, and because of the miserly short-term promises with which the US came to Copenhagen.

In the US, the Senate was dithering on whether or not to enforce a cap and trade mechanism to limit corporate emissions (susceptible to gaming corporate lobbyists) – and that with a modest goal of reducing greenhouse gases to 17 percent of 2005 levels by 2020. China’s 2020 target for the USA to reduce its carbon emissions was ten times greater than what Obama could offer by 2020.

The Obama administration did, however, present more generous concessions in the long term: an offer to reduce emissions from 2005 levels by 42% in 2030 , and by 83% in 2050. It would be understandable, however, why China may have doubted adherence to commitments made by a president who puts the onus of leadership on future governments but cannot hold them accountable to his targets.

But the merits of Obama’s goals for US cuts in emissions were not the only consideration China seemed to have at Copenhagen. Copenhagen was an important opportunity for the US to take on a leadership role in a new multi-polar world.

With China projected by Goldman Sachs to overtake the US as the largest economy by 2030, the way for the US to remain the most dominant force in global politics will be by having China sign itself into US-led global governance structures. A Copenhagen accord of substance would also have leant credibility to the USA’s self-appointed leadership of promoting liberal values, as was evident when US president Obama announced: “The time has come for us to get off the sidelines and shape the future that we seek; that is why I came to Copenhagen.”

And so, on the last day of the summit, president Obama sat for several hours with heads of state from two dozen countries, sitting across ‘a second-tier’ official in the Chinese foreign ministry. ‘The diplomatic snub was obvious and brutal,’ reports Mark Lynas for The Guardian, and it slowed progress as 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”.’

It was China’s representative who not only rejected targets for China but also rejected the previously agreed upon 80% cut by 2050 target for industrialised countries. Several world leaders pointed out the seeming irrationality of China’s position. Angela Merkel ‘threw up her hands in despair’ and conceded the point as the Chinese delegate responded ‘no’ to her question, “Why can’t we even mention our own targets?”

More understandably as a developing country, China, backed by India, replaced 2020 as a year when greenhouse gas emissions should peak with the meaningless target of ‘as soon as possible’.


Indonesia (the third highest emitting state) and Brazil’s emissions come mostly from burning forests for usable land, which is tied with economic growth. They require compensation in order to cut deforestation. The Copenhagen accord allows for this possibility by promising US$30 billion for the purpose of mitigating deforestation, among other things, by 2012 and $100 billion by 2020. The exact donors, amounts to be paid in compensation and mechanisms to hold Indonesia and Brazil accountable remain, however, yet to be decided.

Europe and Japan, as stated above, remain resolute in acting unilaterally. Obama, on the other hand, will have difficulty in ushering into law the weak cap and trade Senate bill waiting to be debated as a result of China’s non-committal at Copenhagen.

India will continue to pollute unabated. As in the US, corporate lobbyists will prevent legislation from passing that curbs emissions, while as in China, leftists will argue for greater polluting rights on an equity basis.

For China, meanwhile, sacrificing the support of the US as a willing and important partner in the fight against global warming for political gain does not mean that the undemocratic state, which does not have to worry about corporate lobbyists, is not concerned about the environment. Fourteen of its coastal cities with administrative area populations of more than 6 million people are vulnerable to rising sea-levels.

To the extent that it can, China will take advantage of Europe and Japan’s unilateral commitments to cut emissions; their reductions take pressure off of China to do more.

At the same time, China is developing a cost-effective way to funnel greenhouse gases underground. It has put 100 million electric bicycles on the road in barely 10 years, is installing the world’s most efficient electricity transmission lines, and its wind turbines will generate five times the power of the Three Gorges Dam within a decade. Between 1991 and 2005, investment in energy research increased 50-fold.

As the second largest polluter, however, the USA was an ally too important for China to sacrifice for political gain. Progress will be made against global warming, but Pakistanis should worry that it won’t be enough.

Why Copenhagen was a failure

●  No obligations on developing countries to make cuts

●  As was expected, the target of holding the target temperature rise from pre-industrial times at 2C prevailed over the target of 1.5C. The extra US$10.5 trillion in energy-related investment by 2030 associated with the 0.5C difference (by the International Energy Agency’s calculations) weighed greater with industrialised states than the concern of 91 least developed states and small island states that may disappear as a result of rising sea-levels

●  The earlier 2050 goal of reducing global CO2 emissions by 50%, and by 80% for industrialised countries, was dropped

●  No reference to a legally binding agreement

●  2020 was not adopted as a peak year for carbon emissions

●  No details of which developed countries were to provide funds, or how much, and what accountability mechanisms would be put in place to mobilise $100 billion by 2020 to address the needs of developing countries

Imaduddin Ahmed is a Schmidheiny Global Business Scholar at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, and a former Features Editor of The Friday Times


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