Copenhagen was a disaster. That much is agreed. But the truth about what actually happened is in danger of being lost amid the spin and inevitable mutual recriminations. The truth is this: China wrecked the talks, intentionally humiliated Barack Obama, and insisted on an awful "deal" so western leaders would walk away carrying the blame. How do I know this? Because I was in the room and saw it happen.You can just see how the Chinese delegation planned this... "Imagine the frustration everybody else will feel when we sit at the hotel watching Baywatch while on the intercom. Hahaha!"
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. The diplomatic snub was obvious and brutal, as was the practical implication: several times during the session, the world's most powerful heads of state were forced to wait around as the Chinese delegate went off to make telephone calls to his "superiors".
To those who would blame Obama and rich countries in general, know this: it was China's representative who insisted that industrialised country targets, previously agreed as an 80% 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.Perhaps someone could tell me why China had to be in the room at all? If the other countries knew China would bust their balls over the numbers to this extent, then why not just make a deal around China? So China wouldn't sign, but at least everyone else would (save for Sudan, and maybe India). Are the US and EU really so dependent on Chinese plastic toys? (Okay, I am fully aware that I am opening a can of worms that I know next to nothing about already, but I would also advocate more than a couple of steps backwards away from all the consumerist considerations that I do know the whole show is so deeply entrenched in.)
China, backed at times by India, then proceeded to take out all the numbers that mattered. A 2020 peaking year in global emissions, essential to restrain temperatures to 2C, was removed and replaced by woolly language suggesting that emissions should peak "as soon as possible". The long-term target, of global 50% cuts by 2050, was also excised. No one else, perhaps with the exceptions of India and Saudi Arabia, wanted this to happen. I am certain that had the Chinese not been in the room, we would have left Copenhagen with a deal that had environmentalists popping champagne corks popping in every corner of the world.
All this raises the question: what is China's game? Why did China, in the words of a UK-based analyst who also spent hours in heads of state meetings, "not only reject targets for itself, but also refuse to allow any other country to take on binding targets?" The analyst, who has attended climate conferences for more than 15 years, concludes that China wants to weaken the climate regulation regime now "in order to avoid the risk that it might be called on to be more ambitious in a few years' time".The thing is, surely someone among the EU and US delegations knew about China's agenda, no? I mean, I could have cooked up such a theory over two Tsingtao no problem, and yet Merkel was (apparently) truly frustrated? But maybe that's just how the game is played when in the room - everyone know the agenda of everyone else, but you have to keep playing your part.
So, does China not care about the climate at all? May it does, but quite understandably (but wrong, I say), they care much more about the short-term economic rise to power and prosperity.
This does not mean China is not serious about global warming. It is strong in both the wind and solar industries. But China's growth, and growing global political and economic dominance, is based largely on cheap coal. China knows it is becoming an uncontested superpower; indeed its newfound muscular confidence was on striking display in Copenhagen. Its coal-based economy doubles every decade, and its power increases commensurately. Its leadership will not alter this magic formula unless they absolutely have to.But that doesn't mean the rest of us can't.