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When China said “no”

Cao Haili

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Some observers say that China wrecked the climate negotiations at Copenhagen. But the reality is more complex, argues Cao Haili.

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If climate change were only an environmental issue, there would be a far easier solution. However, the interplay of national interests that are involved – involving politics, economics and development – places multiple strains on the prospects of an international agreement.

Many observers feel that the two-week climate-change conference in Copenhagen was a disastrous failure. The Copenhagen Accord, produced in closed talks by a small number of key nations, could not have been less substantive; it fell far short of most predicted goals and lacked any legal force. At least five nations tangled over issues of transparency and legitimacy. The angry language used by their representatives on the final evening provided a farcical finale for the conference’s global audience.

There is still disagreement over what really happened in those final 48 hours. Xinhua, China’s official news agency, reported that Chinese premier Wen Jiabao was not invited to secret US-initiated talks on the evening of December 17 and early the next morning, to China’s great displeasure. India’s climate envoy Shyam Saran also raised this matter in a press conference on the afternoon of December 18.

Mark Lynas, a British journalist and member of the Maldives delegation, wrote in the Guardian that he saw at first hand how China “wrecked” closed-door talks between the leaders of 20 nations. Wen Jiabao did not attend, dispatching instead a vice-minister from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Western media reports said that Wen Jiabao, unhappy with US insistence on international verification of China’s emission reductions, refused to join president Barack Obama at the meeting, blocking the negotiations.

Ed Miliband, the British secretary of state for energy and climate, told The Guardian that China had tried to “hijack” the Copenhagen Accord. UK prime minister Gordon Brown expressed a hope that China and the United States would show “they were doing more”.

Besides the rift between China and the United States over measuring, reporting and verification (MRV), the cited evidence of China’s “wrecking” behaviour was its firm opposition to inclusion of the target of global emissions reduction of 50% on 1990 levels by 2050, with developed nations making cuts of 80%.

The reason for China’s opposition was simple: it would restrict China’s development. Given the country’s rate of development and its economic and energy structure, the target would be a tough one for it to reach. Lü Xuedu, a Chinese delegate and deputy director of the National Climate Center, pointed out that global carbon emissions in 1990 were 21 billion tonnes, so a 50% cut by 2050 would mean emissions of 10.5 billion tonnes. In 2005, China emitted 6 billion tonnes of carbon. If the current rate of development continues, those 10.5 billion tonnes might not be enough for China alone, let alone the rest of the world.

China is concerned about domestic political and economic stability. It does not want international legislation restricting its development and is unwilling to see any language that may lead to caps on its emissions.

China did not suddenly arrive at this stance. It has held to this line consistently, particularly after the Bangkok climate talks in October. At that point the European Union’s position changed, and the crux of negotiations became whether or not to stick to the twin-track system of the Bali Roadmap, or merge the two tracks. Under a twin-track arrangement, China and other developing nations are not required to commit to compulsory reductions. But if the two tracks merged, China could face much more stringent restrictions. A worsening conflict between China and the major developed nations became a new piece in the climate-change puzzle.

However, it is unrealistic to believe that without China’s opposition a binding agreement would have been reached. Take the example of the Doha Development Round of WTO negotiations, which were initiated in 2001 but are currently stalled, in which China is not one of the major players. Prior to Doha, the US and EU could remain in control. But now that era has passed: developing nations have a larger say in world affairs. Multilateral negotiations can no longer be dominated by a single nation, or even a single group of nations. This is true for trade talks, and even more so for the more complex interests involved in climate negotiations.

Even if China had not said “no”, the reduction targets that the United States – the other decisive force in climate negotiations – were able to commit to would still make an agreement hard to reach.

The climate bill passed by the House of Representatives proposes that the United States make cuts of 17% on 2005 emission levels by 2020. Against a 1990 baseline, this is around 4%. This is nowhere near the 40% cuts proposed by developing nations, and far short even of the 20% to 30% goal proposed by the EU. But the United States continues to argue that its efforts are sufficient.

The US political system does not give the president absolute decision-making power. The last two decades has seen Congress become ever more partisan and any proposed bill will face strong opposition. Currently, the US climate bill is under discussion in the senate. Senator John Kerry is an active supporter of a climate deal and made a trip to Copenhagen to campaign for one. But it will not be easy for a bitterly divided senate to pass his proposal without significant changes. Therefore, the United States was unable to put forward stronger targets at Copenhagen.

In fact, the United States was happy to see a weak accord emerge from Copenhagen. Congress is not yet ready to accept any international binding agreement. The Obama administration needs to use greater wisdom and better tactics to ensure the climate bill passes the senate in the spring. Otherwise, any commitments the US makes at negotiations are simply bad cheques.

Other richer developing nations, such as India, are also unwilling to accept caps from the developing world. The Indian environment minister Jairam Ramesh visited Beijing in August to discuss an alliance against western pressure. India’s emissions – both in total volume and per capita – are far lower than China’s, but it still has major problems in balancing development and the environment. China is not alone in opposing curbs on overall emissions.

Since Copenhagen produced a weak and non-binding political document, China bought more time for its development. But it is hard to say how long this expediency can last. International pressure on China is already building, and not just from the developed world – it also comes also from the developing nations most at risk from climate change. China’s 30-year economic miracle has come at the cost of a rapidly deteriorating environment; this has not been sustainable development. China has no cause to avoid its responsibilities, either internationally or domestically.

The negotiations, I believe, will eventually have to move towards a single track. Any agreement which does not include China and the United States – the world’s two largest emitters by volume – will not achieve any meaningful result. In one sense then, the Copenhagen Accord at least has achieved something by putting China and the US in the same boat.

Cao Haili, formerly senior reporter at Caijing magazine, is a reporter for chinadialogue.

Homepage image from The White House

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Good article

This article is comprehensive and easy to understand, especially helpful for non-professionals like me. It's a pity that the author doesn't express her own opinions until the last 2 paragraphs. It will be even better to talk more on the meaning and possibility of merging the negotiation from twin-tracks towards single-track.






A mistake

Currently the United States has two pieces of climate legislation, that of the House of Representatives and the Senate.

The 'Clean Energy and Security Act' is the bill proposed by the House of Representation and has already been passed.

The Senate's climate legislation is called the 'Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act'. This bill is expected to be approved in spring.

There will then follow a proposal of compromises for these two bills by the coordination committee, and the final version will then be signed by the President.



Out of date "development" models

But what does "development" mean for China - even more coal, cars, aeroplanes, air-conditioners, waste?

Will this "development" reduce the current level of unrest across the country?

Is that model of development appropriate given (a) the need for sustainability and (b) the inevitability of steep price increases as the world's natural resources are finite?

Investors (even in the public sectror) are already reluctant to invest in costly infrastructure in the "Western World" due to the real and increasing risk that it (airports, etc) will be redundant before the projects have broken even financially given the obligation to cut greenhouse gas emissions.



Happy ending for all?

To put it another way: China is not the only one who is happy to see the failure of Copenhagen, so are America and India?

(translated by Ge Bo)


“中国反对的理由很简单,这个目标会限制中国的发展”。 这个论断不成立,因为经济增长不可能脱离社会阶层。作者把中国的发展和中国的有产阶级及亿万富翁们混为一谈了。

something wrong

"The reason for China’s opposition was simple:it would restrict China’s development". This assertion is wrong because it doesn't exist an economic growth above the social classes. Then you confuse China's development with the richness of the upper class and the number of the chinese billionaires.




What Lu Xuedu assumes

There is some hyperbole in Lu’s comment – nobody, not even China, expects it to continue to grow at its current rate for the next 40 years. As a maturing economy it is bound to be lower than the current 8-10% rate and more likely in the 5-7% range. Its energy intensity is also bound to improve as well as its economy undergoes maturation. That is not to say that China’s planned rate of growth and associated energy needs are self-evidently compatible. But as Einstein said in a different context, “god is in the details”.

Martin Bunzl


美国对哥本哈根的失败实际上还是很高兴的,最失望的是欧洲,中国跟在后面瞎混,凑热闹。为什么呢?你想啊,美国没有批准京都议定书,在世界舆论面前很被动。Obama总统上来,想在应对气候变化上面改变这种由欧洲主导的局面,获得政治,经济和道义上的分数。如果继续按照京都议定书的路子走,得益最多的是欧洲,而不是美国。就是说,美国为欧洲和中国作嫁衣裳,你说美国人内心愿意吗?!如此的结果,就给美国赢得了时间,在未来的一年时间里可以更全盘的考虑这个棋如何下。中国是看到了1步棋,美国已经看到了3步棋,这就是差距。我们在哥本哈根上只代表了自己,说得越多,就说明你越无知,“言多必失嘛”。美国人的看法的逻辑是,这种全球的协议成功性本来就很小,即便达成了,执行力也是个很大的问题,不如贸易法案来得快,有威慑力。那么就从贸易上下手,通过国内的Waxman Markey法,来规范和约束在国际框架下不好约束的中国和印度(主要是中国)的排放,逼迫这些国家采取措施,为达成国际规则打下基础。如果哥本哈根成功了,那么美国就不好办了,前面费了半天劲才在众议院通过的法就是白忙了。这也就是为什么参院要等到哥本哈根结束才来辩论这部法案的原因。我们可千万不能以为躲过了这一招就万事大吉了。

The Failure of Copenhagen Meeting Gave the U.S. Time

The US is the happiest country to see the failure of Copenhagen, while Europe is the most disappointed, followed by China. Why? The US did not approve the Kyoto Protocol, making the country appear passive in the face of global public opinion. Since President Obama's inauguration, the US has been tring to change the situation of Europe's dominance in climate change issues, as well as its inexorable influence in politics, economics, and morality. If following the route of the Kyoto Protocol, Europe is the clear beneficiary (not the US). In other words, the US would work for the benefit of Europe and China, which I doubt Americans would be willing to do so. Thus, the U.S. has won time to contemplate its next move within the next year. China, on the other hand, knows its next move, while the US already knows its next three moves— this is precisely the disparity. At Copenhagen, we only represented ourselves, the more you say, the more mistakes you will make. America’s logic is the success of such a global protocol is minimal: even if an agreement is reached, there are still problems of implementation and is less effective than the trade bill. So from the perspective of trade, via the Waxman-Markey Bill, comes the regulation and restriction within the international framework to constrain China and India’s (primarily China’s) emissions, forcing these countries to adopt measures because an international agreement was defeated. If Copenhagen had succeeded, then the US would have wasted a lot of time passing the Waxman-Markey Bill through the House. Therefore, this is why the Senate wanted to wait until Copenhagen concluded in debating the bill. Surely, it's stupid to believe that everything will be fine because we survived this time.



Learning from US Legislation

I recently read an article about the US climate bill and I was shocked at what I discovered. The bill is a staggering 1428 pages long and includes all kinds of detailed descriptions, plans, and requirements as well as the finances regarding the proposed emissions reductions. The first page of the bill does not clearly specify requirements for China and India but states that it hopes both countries will commit to reductions at least as aggressive as those set forth by the US. The bill also stipulates that Congress will report on annual progress and then decide how to respond accordingly. Reducing emissions and protecting the environment are different but both depend on strict measurements, verification, and reporting; without these things it's all a downright farce. When talking about cutting emissions you need two figures: one being the value of contribution and the other being the present value. If you lack either one or if either value if not precise enough from a statistical point of view then all meaning is lost. Suppose you say that you have increased savings by 8%, but the standard deviation of the figure is 200%. This means the scope of your savings could be positive or negative. If you're unlucky, you may have not only saved nothing, but actually wasted more. This is a very complex issue that requires significant attention and many more resources; it's not something that can be resolved with a few words between politicians. With regard to every aspect of reducing emissions, we really must learn from others and fully understand this knowledge before we are able to go beyond with complete confidence. We cannot continue to make vague statements as we do now and then later think to ourselves that we are unable to stand our ground.

Comment translated by Clay Baylor

关于“发展意味着什么” 回复3号


Regarding "What is the meaning of development" in response to comment 3#

The third comment really makes sense, but avoids dealing with China's most real problem. What is the meaning of development to China? It is at least letting those who have a hard life without much money, living a life that is in keeping with the most basic life securities. An unreasonable increase in the desire for things is not sensible, but that is not all that development is comprised of.




China opposed reductions from developed countries too

What I don't understand is why China also insisted that a commitment by European nations, the US and Australia to an 80% reduction in carbon emissions below 1990 levels by 2050 was also taken out at the behest of China. I read a report on the leaked recordings of Copenhagen meetings in the The Economist in which many leaders (inc. Sarkozy and Merkel) were mystified and infuriated that the Chinese negotiators insisted that European nations take out their own pledges from the Copenhagen Agreement, even though it had no bearing on whether China agreed to an emissions cap or not.


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