China, Copenhagen and climate change

February 11, 2010 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

We were told the Copenhagen climate conference was supposed to seal a global deal to tackle climate change. Yet it failed miserably. Some have latched on to a straightforward explanation for the failure: China did it.

The “blame China” argument has been widely touted in the wake of the Copenhagen debacle. The argument has its advantages: it’s simple, neat, and provides those worried about climate change with an obvious wrongdoer. It has but one disadvantage: it’s not true.

A December 22 Guardian opinion piece by British environmental writer Mark Lynas was among the most read articles published about the Copenhagen climate conference. In his capacity as a climate change advisor to the Indian Ocean island nation of the Maldives, Lynas was present at the negotiations on the final text of the Copenhagen Accord.

He said: “The truth is this: China wrecked the talks, intentionally humiliated Barack Obama, and insisted on an awful ‘deal’ so western leaders would walk away carrying the blame. How do I know this? Because 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.”

Lynas said China’s role was so destructive he was “certain that had the Chinese not been in the room, we would have left Copenhagen with a deal that had environmentalists popping champagne corks in every corner of the world.”

But this claim is fantastically misleading. For a start, it wrongly absolves the rich countries from their role in the sabotage of a strong climate deal.

For instance, simply consider if China were indeed not present at the negotiations. By no means were the US or the European Union — the nations most responsible for historic carbon pollution — prepared to offer emissions cuts in line with the climate science, which require a minimum 40% cut on 1990 levels by 2020. To say otherwise is a daydream.

The US’s offer was a tiny 4% emissions cut — even less than Australia’s irresponsibly low 5% pledge.

A UN study leaked to the Guardian during the Copenhagen summit said the actual emissions cuts offered by each country at Copenhagen would lead to a 3°C average temperature rise.

So leaving the words of the politicians aside, the actions pledged would not meet the stated goal in the Copenhagen Accord for a 2°C warming limit and were far beyond the maximum 1.5°C rise the poor countries demanded.

As Lynas himself has previously written on his blog: “3°C may be the ‘tipping point’ where global warming could run out of control, leaving us powerless to intervene as planetary temperatures soar.”

With or without China, no serious environmentalist could crack out the champagne bottles had the rich countries got their way.

Lynas’s article gives the false impression that the rich countries were stopped by China from agreeing to significant emissions cuts. But the leaking of another document on the second day of the conference — the infamous “Danish text” — had already exposed the dirty deal being prepared by governments such as Denmark, the US, Australia and Britain.

The Danish text angered the poor nations precisely because it showed a small group of wealthy countries were conspiring behind the backs of the rest of the world to prevent a strong and fair binding agreement.

Lumumba Di-Aping, the chair of the G77 group of poor countries said: “This [Danish] text destroys both the UN convention on climate change and the Kyoto protocol. This is aimed at producing a new treaty, a new legal initiative that throws away the basis of [differing] obligations between the poorest and most wealthy nations in the world.”

After Copenhagen was over, Nnimmo Bassey, chair of Friends of the Earth International, pointed to the real reason for Copenhagen’s failure: the rich countries flat refused to make the sharp emissions cuts required or provide adequate funding to help poor countries develop low-carbon economies.

“Instead of committing to deep cuts in emissions and putting new, public money on the table to help solve the climate crisis, rich countries have bullied developing nations to accept far less”, he said.

“Those most responsible for putting the planet in this mess have not shown the guts required to fix it and have instead acted to protect short-term political interests.”

By putting the biggest blame on China, Lynas ignores the powerful influence the fossil fuel industry, with its legions of paid lobbyists and bought politicians, had over the Copenhagen conference. And inexcusably, he papers over the fact that the rich world sought to use Copenhagen to shift more of the burden for greenhouse gas cuts onto the underdeveloped world.

However, China’s role at Copenhagen does not deserve praise. China’s capitalist government is also guilty of putting its short term interests ahead of the future of the planet. To deny China is climate enemy number 1 is not the same as saying China has a right to increase carbon pollution indefinitely.

Focus on the Global South’s Walden Bello has warned against viewing global politics as a simplistic division between the rich North and underdeveloped South. This division is very real, but the class divisions that exist within each nation must also be taken into account.

In 2007 he said: “It is the national elites that spout the ultra-Third Worldist line that the South has yet to fulfill its quota of polluting the world while North has exceeded its quota. It is they who call for an exemption of the big rapidly industrialising countries from mandatory limits on the emission of greenhouse gases under a new Kyoto Protocol.

“When the [US] administration says it will not respect the Kyoto Protocol because it does not bind China and India, and the Chinese and Indian governments say they will not tolerate curbs on their greenhouse gas emissions because the US has not ratified Kyoto, they are in fact playing out an unholy alliance to allow their economic elites to continue to evade their environmental responsibilities and free-ride on the rest of the world.”

Breaking this “unholy alliance” between the capitalist elites in the North and the South is an inescapable goal for the climate justice movement.

The good news is that the revolt of the poorest nations inside the offical summit, combined with the protests of tens of thousands outside on Copenhagen’s streets, marked a new highpoint in the campaign to change the system, not the climate.

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