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  1. Spotlight on Policy
  2. Sustainability
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23 December 2009updated 27 Sep 2015 2:28am

How China ensured it was an unfair COP

Here's what really happened to scupper the climate summit

By Mark Lynas

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.

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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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