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The end of idealism

The failure of climate talks in Copenhagen exposed some uncomfortable truths about the current global order, argues Tang Wei.

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UN-led climate talks drew to a close in Copenhagen on December 19. Although a weak outcome had been widely predicted, many were still shocked by just how little the conference managed to achieve.

The World Resources Institute had listed five indicators for success at Copenhagen: targets, timetables and actions for cutting emissions; funding for global climate action; common standards for tracking emissions reductions; a peer review mechanism for measurement, reporting and verification of cuts; and a legally-binding climate agreement. The conference failed on virtually all counts.

Al Gore may believe a carbon pricing mechanism can create a link between emissions reductions and incentives in daily life, but the negotiations achieved almost nothing in this regard. The only concrete achievements were the statement of intent on the need for urgent global action on climate change, and the US$100 billion (683 billion yuan) in aid from developed nations to the developing world and island nations to be disbursed from 2020.

The endless stream of proposals put forward at the negotiations – and accompanying diplomatic onslaughts – highlighted how much disagreement still surrounds four basic issues; namely, emissions cuts by developed nations; emissions caps for developing nations; assistance to poor nations; and a future emissions reduction deal. Clearly, there are still barriers to joint action on climate change.

There is a limit to the world’s capacity for greenhouse gases and the international community must curb the emissions of individual nations. But they must do so while taking into account economic growth, inter-generational equality and human survival. The result is tension between environmental capacity and development needs.

At the same time, if we are to slow down climate change, we need innovation in new energy sources and a technological revolution. These areas will affect any nation’s basic ability to compete and influence changes in the international system.

Climate change has gradually morphed from a matter of science and environmental diplomacy into one of economics and geopolitics. Developed and developing world camps have split into three groups: the European Union, the US-led Umbrella Group, and the Group of 77, a loose coalition of 130 developing countries, including China. Within these, there are further divisions – eastern and western Europe; the United States, Japan and Australia; the African Union; island nations; and the BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India, China) group. The multiple dealings and checks and balances created by this system make for exceptionally complex negotiations.

In the past, the most prominent characteristic of climate talks has been to pre-empt the other side and make concessions, or to propose environmental protection measures – with conditions attached. But all the signs at Copenhagen suggest the differing interests of small island nations and superpowers cannot always be settled by negotiations and discussion.

The Copenhagen talks have overturned some accepted beliefs; for example, that climate change is a classic, non-traditional security issue that can only be solved by global cooperation, and that doing so will create new areas of growth for all nations.

This idealistic thinking ignores the fact that action by sovereign nations is invariably driven by their own ecological vulnerability, the costs of emissions cuts and special interests. No nation will sacrifice its own welfare for the sake of the world’s – even if it means disaster for others.

Realism may be cruel, but it makes clear that the existing system of international governance is powerless in the face of irresponsible superpowers; and that the current arrangements, above all, serve the interests of northern nations. People once believed that the election of president Barack Obama would lead to fundamental change in US climate change policy – that the United States would start to consider its image as an international leader and the competitiveness of its green industries and thus commit to mandatory emission reductions and a return to multilateralism.

But during the negotiations, Obama and US climate representative Todd Stern showed that, while the US stance may have softened somewhat in line with international trends, the new administration has done little to set itself apart from George W Bush on the substantive matters of mandatory emissions reductions, necessary cuts from emerging economies, financial and technical support and the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities”. Changes in US climate-change policy are therefore limited and, at most, merely alterations in attitude, intention and ideals.

From start to finish, US climate-change policy has prioritised its own national interests; it is designed to fight for the lifestyle of its citizens and national supremacy, even in the context of this global issue. The principle of sovereignty above all else still survives, even in the postmodern era.

Thanks to determined campaigning from developing nations, the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, the Bali roadmap and the two-track negotiation mechanism were all upheld at Copenhagen. But the future direction of development trends also began to emerge – developing nations will also gradually commit to emissions targets, and emerging economies such as China, India and Brazil should sign up to mandatory measurable targets and submit to international verification.

In the run-up to Copenhagen, China and many other emerging nations announced carbon reduction targets and used a meeting of BASIC nations to express support for the Copenhagen negotiations and their unshakeable diplomatic “red lines”. A string of incidents during the negotiation process showed that developed nations, on the other hand, were not prepared to accept and respect the interests and hopes of the developing world.

It is clear from these events that, in international climate diplomacy, the right to speak has to be fought for and this is how climate-change mechanisms are formed. We should not think that developed nations will surrender their own interests and provide finance and technology of their own accord, nor should we expect continued unity among developing nations when interests among them are so varied.

Developing countries will have to protect the just principles of climate negotiations and fight for even the smallest of interests. Climate change has become an accepted part of political discourse, but that does not mean, as some Chinese academics have suggested, that we should adopt mandatory emission targets too soon and surrender our development rights and future environmental capacity.

Emerging nations have already made remarkable efforts with voluntary emissions reductions, but it is hard to convince the developed world that these countries are already doing as much as they can. Red lines aside, emerging nations must let the climate diplomats know that we need, support and, as far as possible, will adopt measures to ensure humanity’s success in the battle against climate change – but, crucially, we should not fear pressure and demands that are beyond our ability to meet.

Tang Wei is assistant researcher at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences’ Ecological Economics and Sustainable Development Institute.

Homepage image by Polska Zielona Sieć

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



the war of politics

What we've been negotiating on was previously solved by war. Now through negotiation, we attempt to avoid fighting physically for a scarce resource (co2 emission). In this way, we are attempting to suppress the law of jungle which is embedded in human nature. See how incredibly tough it is.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



这是很典型的民族主义的观点: 国家的定义大概一直涵盖了“自身利益至上”。


"No nation will sacrifice its own welfare for the sake of the world’s.."

The article states that "No nation will sacrifice its own welfare for the sake of the world’s.."

This is very much a nationalistic view - nation presumably being defined as "those whose interests prevail".

As all good journalists should know, the welfare of people in many countries is adversely affected by abuse (be this financial, legal, social or environmental) and the people are either ignored or - increasingly - intimidated by those in power.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



How can you call this a 'remarkable' effort?

When I read the conclusion to this article stating 'Emerging nations have already made remarkable efforts with voluntary emissions reductions', I actually thought it should be changed to 'Emerging nations have already blown out the candle on voluntary emissions reductions' so as to conform to reality a little better, in the future it will be very difficult to 'speak from among one's own circle', because it may no longer be there. There is a large portion of people who have never done anything to save energy or reduce emissions, and it doesn't matter whether he is a Dr., or a professor, he will always be left to pick up the pieces, then how can this make sense on an international scale, when he can't even convince his own people?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


想必各位看家都读过斯特恩爵士的"The Economics of Climate Change",那个名字明明讲的是”气候变化的经济学“,我们现在的各位专家谈的都是”气候变化的国际政治学“,人人都变成气候变化政治学家了,而不是气候变化经济学家,真是个怪事。这是不是说明,实际上咱们现在还没有这样的”气候变化经济学家“呢?说不定。当然了,政治和经济紧密相关,这两个复杂的,千变万化的,并且没有任何对与错的问题搅合在一起,结果就是没有谁是绝对之权威,也没有谁是绝对之笨伯。那么谁能告诉我们,对中国而言,这个帐到底该如何算呢?

Climate change is really a question of economics

Surely you have all ready Sir Stern's "The Economics of Climate Change," which, by its name, clearly discusses the economics of climate change. Now that all of our experts are discussing the "international politics of climate change," everyone has become climate change political scientists, as opposed to climate change economists. This is very strange. Doesn't this say that, in reality, we don't have any "climate change economists?" Perhaps. Of course, politics and economics are closely related; both are complex and changing often, and there are no right and wrong questions together. The result is that there is no absolute authority, nor absolute fool. So who can tell us, as far as China is concerned, exactly how to settle this account? (Translated by David Vance Wagner)