China: The Prince of Denmark

Like Hamlet, Shakespeare's conflicted Prince of Denmark, China was caught between conflicting currents in Copenhagen. Its failure to manage these challenges led to its biggest diplomatic debacle in years.

Almost a month after the debacle at the United Nations climate conference in Copenhagen (Conference of Parties or COP 15), the question of who scuttled the talks elicits fury and derision.

By many accounts, President Barack Obama comes across either as a figure who valiantly tries to rescue a doomed conference, or as a well-meaning head of state whose hands are unfortunately tied by the realities of U.S. politics.

As the villain of the continuing climate drama, Washington has been replaced in much of the media by Beijing. China did make mistakes in Copenhagen, but the media portrayal of it as the spoiler of the climate change negotiations is neither accurate nor fair. Like Hamlet, Shakespeare's conflicted Prince of Denmark, China was caught in multiple crosscurrents in Copenhagen. Its failure to manage these led to one of its biggest diplomatic setbacks in years.

The British Accusation

In the immediate aftermath of the talks, Ed Miliband, Britain's secretary of energy and climate change, charged that China vetoed an agreement on a 50 percent global reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, or on 80 percent reductions by developed countries "despite the support of a coalition of developed and the vast majority of developing countries."

Many climate activists would probably have taken Miliband's statement as simply part of the blame game after the controversial ending of a critical conference, had it not been seconded — and in detail — by Mark Lynas of the Guardian, a British newspaper that's usually critical of the policies of Washington, London,  and other northern governments. Lynas described the scene at a key Friday night meeting of selected countries as the clock raced to the conclusion of the conference:

"What I saw was profoundly shocking. The Chinese premier, Wen Jinbao, did not deign to attend the meetings personally, instead sending a second-tier official in the country's foreign ministry to sit opposite Obama himself. To those who would blame Obama and rich countries in general, know this: It was China's representative who insisted that industrialized country targets, previously agreed as an 80 percent cut by 2050, be taken out of the deal. "Why can't we even mention our own targets?" demanded a furious Angela Merkel. Australia's prime minister, Kevin Rudd, was annoyed enough to bang his microphone. Brazil's representative too pointed out the illogicality of China's position. Why should rich countries not announce even this unilateral cut? The Chinese delegate said no, and I watched, aghast, as Merkel threw up her hands in despair and conceded the point. Now we know why – because China bet, correctly, that Obama would get the blame for the Copenhagen accord's lack of ambition."

This account of a relatively low-ranking Chinese official vetoing the naming of unilateral cuts offered by heads of northern countries is indeed shocking. But there's something the Guardian piece neglects to mention: The meeting was one of several unofficial meetings with a small number of countries that Obama had called, apparently with the support of host Denmark, in order to impose a deal on the climate conference, and the drafting of the declaration was, in fact, a violation of an agreed-on conference process.

Where China Went Wrong

Where China went wrong was not so much in opposing the listing of the emission numbers, but in agreeing to attend these covert caucuses where Obama and a small group of other heads of state sought to unilaterally draft a declaration. China undoubtedly knew that these meetings, which included leaders of selected northern countries as well as those of Brazil, South Africa, and India, undermined the UN process. In the days leading up to Copenhagen, China had heard its allies in the developing world expose and denounce a covert effort by Denmark to convoke a parallel conference of over 20 countries to push through an unauthorized "Danish text" that advanced a climate agenda favored by the developed countries.

It's perhaps not coincidental that most of the countries invited by Denmark were participants in the "Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate" first called by President George W. Bush, and re-launched before the Copenhagen meeting by Obama, allegedly to "facilitate a candid dialogue among major developed and developing economies." The real aim of both the Major Economies Forum and the Danish parallel conference was, in the opinion of some Southern observers, to drive a wedge between more advanced developing countries and the poorer, least developed, and most vulnerable countries.

Second Thoughts?

Having joined the covert Obama caucuses, China probably realized that it couldn't lend too much legitimacy to a declaration that issued from them, since this would anger the majority of developing countries excluded from the meetings, which resembled the notorious "Green Room" get-togethers of heavy hitters in international trade during the ministerial conferences of the World Trade Organization. This backtracking probably explains Prime Minister Wen Jiao Bao's absence from the final caucus to finalize the declaration and his replacement by a relatively low-ranking official. This was the meeting witnessed by Mark Lynas. China blocked the declaration of voluntary emissions reduction figures — designed to give the big climate polluters the veneer of global responsibility without any significant obligations — because it did not likely want to give too much prominence to a document drafted at the margins of the conference.

By attending the caucuses and participating in the drafting of the unauthorized declaration, China laid itself open to a diplomatic fiasco. Eager to escape the blame for the collapse of what had been billed as the most important conference of our lifetime, the North could sanctimoniously point to China's blocking the numbers to "prove" that it was the conference spoiler, which is precisely what Britain's Miliband did. At the same time, many developing country negotiators and observers were confirmed in their suspicions that China has a self-serving agenda inconsistent with that of the global South. After all, China joined the Obama caucuses and participated in the drafting of an unauthorized political declaration that the prominent Indian intellectual Praful Bidwai described as a "dirty collusive deal" between the U.S.-led North and the China-led heavy polluters of the South. Despite Beijing's point-by-point responses to such accusations, the general perception took hold that it was to blame for the failed talks.

The Chinese leadership must find this billing as the villain of Copenhagen very frustrating. After all, right before Copenhagen, Beijing promised that it would reduce carbon dioxide emissions per unit of gross domestic product in 2020 by 40-45 percent compared to 2005 levels. Its automobile fuel-efficiency standards are now stricter than those of the United States. It's a global leader in wind and solar energy development. Even Thomas Friedman, no China lover, talked about China's "Green Leap Forward" and how the government is determined to meet the energy challenge "with cleaner, homegrown sources so that its future economy will be less vulnerable to supply shocks and so it doesn't pollute itself to death."

The Real Villain

If there were a government that sabotaged the meeting, it was the United States. U.S. negotiators made clear to the world, even before Copenhagen, that Washington wasn't yet ready for binding commitments after evading the emissions cuts required by the Kyoto Protocol for over a decade. Using U.S. Senate opposition as an excuse, Obama's negotiators systematically dampened any hopes for the binding accord that the global public had expected Copenhagen would produce. After being shamed by the pledges of other countries, Washington ultimately committed to a 17 percent voluntary cut of greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels. But other countries viewed Washington's offer, which translated into an insignificant 4 percent reduction from 1990 levels, as a joke.

Whether Obama and his negotiators were right in fearing a backlash from the right wing if they made the United States appear too ambitious is a matter of debate. Nevertheless, Washington's diplomacy ensured that Copenhagen would be dead on arrival. It's easy to imagine Beijing's resentment at Obama's push to engineer a PR triumph via a declaration with high-sounding rhetoric, laced with meaningless voluntary commitments and backed up by so little actual commitment.

China's Growth Problem

Although China was not the villain of Copenhagen, it did play the role of accomplice. It participated in Obama's unofficial caucuses of the rich and the powerful, even as it sought to lead the "G77 and China" grouping in the formal UN process. The conflicting demands of these two roles underline China's contradictory status in the world: It is simultaneously an economic superpower with a massive carbon footprint and a developing country. Its economic and ecological impact on the world is now greater than most developed countries, but its leadership and people continue to see themselves as belonging to the developing world.

In 2009, China displaced the United States as the world's biggest automobile market and Germany as the world's top exporter. Many economists expect that China will surpass Japan this year as the second leading economy, on its way to becoming the largest economy sometime after 2030.

So fast has China's growth been in the last two decades that, as analyst Zachary Karabell notes, "as many as 300 million people are middle class or upper middle class by any definition, and that number is equivalent to the population of the United States and of the European Union." Yet hundreds of millions of rural Chinese are mired in poverty, earning an average of $285 a year. Moving up from poverty and hunger is their common aspiration, and Beijing fears that there will be hell to pay if this is thwarted.

Making more and more of its population middle class in order to stave off political unrest is thus the Chinese leadership's overriding goal. It can only accomplish this goal, in its view, by continuing on a high-growth path that is dependent, at least in the short term, on coal. China is now the world's number-one consumer of coal and its use now earns it the dubious honor of being the world's number one emitter of greenhouse gases. As Richard Heinberg has noted, "while China is quickly becoming the world leader in renewable energy technologies, it has no realistic prospect of phasing out coal without giving up its high GDP growth rates."

China's formal position, leading up to Copenhagen, was that the meeting should come up with a legally binding agreement committing the United States and other industrialized countries to deep cuts in their greenhouse gas emissions while limiting action demanded from developing countries like itself to voluntary targets. Yet so destabilizing is China's coal-dependent high-growth strategy that even if COP 15 had produced an agreement specifying mandatory cuts from the developed countries, the pressure on Beijing to agree to similar obligatory cuts would grow as it overtook Japan as the world's second-largest economy and closed in on the United States. And the pressure would come not just from the North but the South as well.

Thus the single-minded dedication to high-speed growth, which is the axis around which both its domestic and foreign policies spin, has motivated China to put off as long as possible the day when it will have to agree to mandatory limits on its greenhouse gas emissions. As such, the weak, Obama-brokered accord that came out of Copenhagen and was mainly meant to accommodate the United States was also in synch with Beijing's perceived interests.

The planet, however, cannot wait. And the idea that one can deliver a U.S.-style middle-class lifestyle for the bulk of the world's population without provoking a climate crisis is a dangerous illusion. Until it finally gets up the courage to turn away from the globally destabilizing high-growth development path pioneered by the North, Beijing will be condemned to play the role of Hamlet in global climate politics. It will continue to demand flexibility as a developing country while covertly colluding to defuse tough climate measures that might obstruct its rise as an economic superpower. The world cannot afford this tragedy to be enacted on the global stage.

About the authors

Walden Bello

Author of more than 14 books, Bello was awarded the Right Livelihood Award (also known as the Alternative Nobel Prize) in 2003 for "... outstanding efforts in educating civil society about the effects of corporate globalisation, and how alternatives to it can be implemented." Bello has been described by the Economist as the man “who popularised a new term: deglobalisation.”

Bello predicted the financial crisis several years prior to the current meltdown and is a globally respected figure within the alternative globalisation movement. Canadian author Naomi Klein called him the "world's leading no-nonsense revolutionary."

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