Forget about who killed Copenhagen. The right question is ‘Why’?


China wrecked the Copenhagen deal, or so says Mark Lynas (who was in the room as part of the Maldives delegation).
The explosive news that it was China that insisted on removing the commitment by industrialised country to cut their own greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050, reverberated around the internet last week (over 25,000 people downloaded Lynas’s article.) Ed Miliband and Gordon Brown weighed in with the same accusation, escalating it towards becoming a diplomatic incident.

The US and China have both given their own blow-by-blow accounts of the last farcical hours of Copenhagen, burnishing their own leaders as the heroes of the hour. NGOs, campaigners and commentators have lined up on predictable sides of the blame game. Much of the analysis of the closed room mystery of ‘who killed Copenhagen’ reveals as much about the commentators’ attitudes, as it does about the suspects’ motives. Tony Juniper goes so far as to call the China‘inscrutable’ .

Sinophobia aside, there seems to be a common gap in much of the analysis: it recognises that US domestic political constraints hold Obama back from pledging stronger emission cuts, while completely ignoring the question of what domestic forces are driving and constraining the Chinese leadership.

At the same time, it is clear that China has made an unprecedented commitment to developing and bringing new energy technologies to market. How, then can we reconcile the seemingly conflicting information that the country that is developing wind turbines, solar panels, hydroelectric dams, and other renewable energy industries faster than anyone else, was also the one that scuppered the deal?

The game theorists tell us that rather than looking for pantomime villains to boo at, what is crucial is to understand countries’ motivations to cooperate or defect, in order to design strategies and incentives to bootstrap the systems needed for strong cooperation and ambitious action.

So what were Wen, and the Chinese negotiating team playing at? The arguments I have heard for why China didn’t need a deal are:

  1. China will be a developed country soon. As Lynas reported, China wants to weaken the climate regulation regime now “in order to avoid the risk that it might be called on to be more ambitious in a few years’ time”.
  2. China was holding out for a fair long-term agreement. Long-term goals of 50% for the world and 80% for developed countries imply that that developing countries would have to cut their emissions 60% in per capita terms, curbing their prospects for economic growth and locking in inequitable emissions (and living standards) in the long-term.
  3. China doesn’t like multilateral governance. China views multilateral environmental governance as a hindrance to its freedom of action and has not been negotiating in good faith.
  4. China needed to be seen to stand up to the US not dissimilar to the way in which the US needed to show its people it had stood up to China.
  5. China’s green leap forward does not depend on a strong global regime, indeed its policy-driven head-start in developing greentech industries, benefits from its competitors being held back by a lack of hard caps and strong carbon price signals.

And for why it did:

  1. China wants to take its place as a major economy and diplomatic power. For the world’s biggest emitter to be seen as a global leader it must be part of the deal on climate change.
  2. An international treaty would strengthen central government’s ability to influence the performance of regional government. Francesco Sisci writing in the Asia Times says Beijing was counting on Copenhagen to deliver the stick of international sanctions and the carrot of technology transfer to help it drive reductions to conventional pollution and environmental damage at a regional level.
  3. China needed to be seen to support a strong deal for developing countries to retain its place (and cover) within the G77 + China negotiating group.

No country is a monolith, and I am sure that these and other motivations have played out to varying degrees of importance, and for different audiences, over the past two years. But number 5 seems like the real deal-breaker to me.

China’s green leap forward demonstrates the inexorable logic for low-carbon development – the need to adapt to the unavoidable: the changing climate and the impacts of current and impending international market and public policy mediated carbon constraints. China has enacted ambitious policies to grow a green economy, but its aim is not to save the planet but to meet its own priorities for cleaner air and water, energy security, more efficient resource use, and expanded and affordable access to modern energy. Given that China has already given up claim to international adaptation, the key bits of international climate action that matter most for these development plans are trade (the threat of green protectionism) and technology transfer. Since neither of these were on the table by the end of Copenhagen it is hardly surprising that China felt little pressure to make further concessions to achieve a stronger deal.

Cracking the critical problem of how to develop practically compelling international cooperation to accelerate transition from old energy sources to clean, renewable energy will depend on finding mechanisms and deals that enable countries to meet national priorities. It will mean coming out from the cover of outdated negotiating blocs, and reliance on government-to-government agreement, and it will mean recognising that any attempt to neatly divide the world into black hats and white hats is not only fruitless but pointless.

One Response to “Forget about who killed Copenhagen. The right question is ‘Why’?”

  1. Dear Maya,

    Thanks so much for trying to shed light on the Cop15 bust-up when so many commentators are generating fury and hot air.

    And thanks for linking to my article.

    I’m still trying to untangle all the information and misinformation flying about. One senses there are all sorts of deals being made behind the scenes that we’ll probably never fully fathom.

    Happy New Year. Hoping this decade will bring more peace than the last one.

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