How China ensured it was an unfair COP

Here's what really happened to scupper the climate summit

The truth about what happened at Copenhagen will not be easy for many people to hear, because it challenges everything they think they know about the world.

Yes, the "deal" was atrocious -- no long-term targets, no peaking year for emissions, no legally binding framework. What no one seems to properly understand is why such high hopes were dashed with such devastating failure.

The truth is this: a better deal was blocked by powerful nations in the developing world, in particular China. Several of those present in the room as heads of state from more than 20 countries battled it out late into the final night confirm this essential truth, and that Chinese attitudes and behaviour were at times deeply shocking.

Consider that the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, did not deign to attend the heads of state meeting, instead sending a middle-ranking official to sit at the table with Obama, Merkel, Sarkozy, Australia's Kevin Rudd and leaders from Grenada, Ethiopia, Maldives, Brazil, Mexico and others.

The Chinese have a reputation for being highly status-conscious. There is little doubt that this was a calculated diplomatic slight, aimed, perhaps, at the American president. Instead, all these world leaders, Obama included, were forced to wait as the Chinese delegate went to consult his superiors, or alternatively to attend separate bilaterals with the Chinese premier as he held court in a nearby luxury hotel.

I was attached to one of the delegations whose head of government attended nearly all the top-level negotiations among leaders and, as senior adviser, I had the opportunity to be present in the room where the intense top-level negotiations took place. Moreover, what took place in the heads of state meeting room and other parallel negotiations is confirmed by multiple high-level sources.

They emphasise that it was the Chinese delegate who insisted on tinkering with the 1.5 degrees Celcius temperature target -- crucial to the survival of small-island states -- until it was largely meaningless. China and India together also removed any mention of a peaking year for emissions (essential to keep temperature rises below even two degrees) or any long-term target for global emissions reductions by 2050, fearing that this would threaten their growth.

Most egregiously, it was China that insisted also on the removal of any mention even of rich countries' own targets -- initially suggested as 80 per cent by 2050. It is known that Angela Merkel in particular was incensed that even previously agreed and publicly announced targets by industrialised countries should also be excised from the text. Australia's Kevin Rudd, too, protested strongly. But China stood firm and the targets disappeared.

When the text became public, it was western leaders who stood excoriated for having "weakened" the Copenhagen Accord. At the final conference plenary after the announcement of the "deal", the Sudanese delegate Lumumba Stanislaus Di-Aping (leader of the G77 and China group of developing countries) tore the agreement apart, suggesting that the weakness of its targets made it "murderous" to Africans.

What he did not mention was that it was his patrons, the Chinese (who have large investments in Sudan), who had gutted the much stronger, original deal pushed by the western leaders in the first place. Di-Aping's comparison of the accord with the Holocaust was not just offensive and inappropriate, it was also grimly ironic, given that Sudan's own head of state was unable to attend the meeting because he has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes.

One of the heroes of the hour was our own Ed Miliband, who saved the conference from certain failure by intervening to move an adjournment seconds before the Danish prime minister (who was chairing) was about to throw in the towel. Gordon Brown, too, emerges with credit, having kept the $100bn financing provision for developing nations in the final text.

So what is China's game? Clearly the country is beginning to assume the mantle of a global superpower, and the picture is not pretty. Any suggestions of constraints on its coal-based growth are roundly rejected. It was clear to me that a collapse of the entire process would also have been just fine with China in particular, and probably India as well.

If this is how China plans to use its growing might over future years and decades, we are all in deep trouble. I came to Copenhagen full of optimism and hope. I left with a sense of deep foreboding and near despair.

A version of this piece by Mark Lynas will appear in the 4 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman.

 

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Mark Lynas has is an environmental activist and a climate change specialist. His books on the subject include High Tide: News from a warming world and Six Degree: Our future on a hotter planet.
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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.