Climate change after Copenhagen
China's thing about numbers
How an emerging superpower dragged its feet, then dictated terms, at a draining diplomatic marathon
Dec 30th 2009 | COPENHAGEN | From The Economist print edition
AMID the alphabet soup and baffling procedures of last month’s climate-change conference in Copenhagen, it was easy to forget the overall aim: to move from a world in which carbon dioxide emissions are rising to one in which they are falling, fast enough to make a difference.
How fast is enough? A fair measure is carbon and other greenhouse emissions in 2050; if by that date they are only half their 1990 level, most people agree, then things would be on the right track. Another widely accepted calculation: if developing countries are to grow a bit between now and then, rich countries would need to slash emissions to a level at least 80% below what they were in 1990.
Many prosperous states have duly accepted that target; and in recent years the expression “80% by 2050” has become a familiar, if optimistic, touchstone for discussions about climate change—both in the rich world and among most other parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
When drafts of a last-ditch agreement began circulating on December 18th, which should have been the meeting’s final day, the “80% by 2050” formula was still in place. But, hours later, it vanished. By this stage, efforts to find consensus among almost 200 delegations had given way to bargaining sessions among smallish groups of countries behind closed doors. When the fruits of that back-room trading were presented to the world by Barack Obama, the numbers were conspicuous by their absence.
So too were a number of other conditions that Europeans and others would have liked, such as a date for peak emissions. “Why?”, a cluster of journalists asked Lars-Erik Liljelund, the Swedish government’s point man on climate, in the early hours of Saturday December 19th. Why would a pledge that applied only to rich nations, and to which all those nations seemed to agree, have vanished from the final document? After maybe ten seconds of what-can-I-say silence came the flat reply: “China don’t like numbers.”
This is not entirely true. The speech to the conference that morning by Wen Jiabao, the prime minister, included a lot of numbers. There had been 51% growth in China’s renewable-energy output over the three years to 2008; China had planted 20m hectares of forests between 2003 and 2008; developed countries had produced 80% of emissions over the past 200 years; and so on. The numbers that China had resisted were those that could be read in any way as commitments. It had insisted on stripping all figures, even ones that did not apply to China, out of the text that finally became the Copenhagen accord.
In their zeal to avoid being pinned down, the Chinese went further. They secured the removal of language contained in early drafts that spoke of a Copenhagen deal as a step on the road to a legally binding treaty. As the world’s largest emitter (without which any agreement is dead), China was in a strong position, and it took full advantage.
Such was the messy denouement of ten days of largely fruitless UN-guided negotiations, in which China did nothing to push things along. Indeed, some suspected China of doing something worse than just folding its arms. The atmosphere was poisoned, early in the meeting, by the leaking of a draft (one of several texts circulated by the Danish chair) that favoured the rich world; various parties thought the Chinese were the leakers.
On the final day, tension rose when President Obama was obliged to conduct negotiations with comparatively junior Chinese delegates. At one point, Mr Obama expected to meet his Chinese opposite number one-on-one but instead found himself with the leaders of South Africa, Brazil and India as well.
All that said, China also gave some ground. It satisfied the Americans on one sticking-point: the principle of “monitoring, reporting and verification” of actions promised by developing countries. Unless China, in particular, can be shown to live up to its promises, it will be very difficult to get a climate bill through America’s Senate. To Mr Obama’s relief, the accord allows for an international role in such monitoring, which China and India had been resisting. This is not just an academic point; China has pledged a reduction, of between 40% and 45% by 2020, in the level of its “carbon intensity”—the amount of carbon emitted in proportion to output. It is hard to tell how big a change the Chinese promise represents from business as usual; but it has an impressive ring.
Among the accord’s other features were a new system for recording pledges on emission reduction and other actions; a review of those commitments, due in 2015; and an as yet undefined mechanism for North-South technology transfer. And there is money on the table: an initial promise of $10 billion a year, for three years, from developed countries to help poorer states mitigate climate change and adapt to it. Some of this money will go to towards implementing a “REDD-plus” deal on deforestation, an issue on which real progress was made. Part of the rich-to-poor transfers will flow through a “Copenhagen Green Climate Fund”, which some poor countries prefer to the World Bank.
The process will, in theory, accelerate. Rich countries vowed to mobilise $100 billion a year by 2020 for more ambitious adaptation-and-mitigation projects in the poor world. The UN is supposed to set up a “high-level panel” to work out the details of who gets what. Maddeningly vague? Almost everybody admitted that the deal was not nearly as ambitious as they would have liked. According to most climate models, the commitments made in Copenhagen fall a long way short of what would be needed to keep global warming to 2°C.
Still, it was widely held to be better than nothing—though, in the final moments, nothing nearly triumphed. On the evening of December 18th heads of state claimed victory as they drove off to the airport; but their offstage bargains were unlikely to make much difference without a nod, at least, from the whole meeting. So the bigwigs left it to more junior negotiators to present the result of their horse-trading to the world’s grumpy, exhausted delegates.
When it was introduced to a conference plenary in the small hours of Saturday morning, a few countries—notably Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua—tried to thwart any such benediction. They insisted that, as it had not been drafted by any official procedure, the deal struck by hand-picked leaders was just a “miscellaneous document” of no practical consequence. The accord would throw Africa “into the furnace”, added Lumumba Stanislaus Di-Aping of Sudan, who spoke for the “G77 plus China” group of developing nations, and compared the rich countries’ heartlessness to Hitler’s genocide.
Such rhetoric proved self-defeating; more passion was expended on countering it than could be mustered for the accord itself. “I call on my brother from Sudan to rethink his conclusions and get hold of his emotions,” said Dessima Williams of Grenada, representative of the Alliance of Small Island States, as she accepted a deal that fell far short of the islanders’ hopes. After more than three hours of back and forth, the British energy and climate-change minister, Ed Miliband, called for an adjournment just as Lars Lokke Rasmussen, the Danish prime minister, who was chairing the session, seemed to be accepting that the accord would founder.
Only after more hours of back-room wrangling did a restarted plenary, with a new chair, get the accord adopted after a fashion. Thanks to rapid gavelling, the world’s delegates found they had decided to “take note” of the leaders’ agreement—a formula that was held both to permit the deal to come into effect and to allow some nations to renounce it. A bid to reinsert the notion of a future binding treaty was firmly quashed by China, India and Saudi Arabia. The next step is for the nations signing up to the accord to do so, and to affix to it any commitments they are making, which is due to happen by February 1st.
At that point, it appears, various steps to implement the accord and distribute the money that it speaks of can begin. How that implementation will fit into the ongoing UN talks—the next full conference will be in Mexico on November 29th—is, as yet, unclear. Equally uncertain is the degree to which it can breathe new life into market mechanisms for helping poor countries, and how the promised verification regime will actually build trust.
At some stage documents with numbers, and even long-term aspirations, will become necessary again, and the nation that invented the abacus will have to overcome its aversion to arithmetic.
Correction: We originally referred to Wen Jiabao as China's president. He is in fact the prime minister. Sorry. This was changed on January 6th 2010.
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