Climate Change and China’s Global Responsibilities

There should be little surprise that the Copenhagen Conference fared as badly as it did. For far too long, major governments refused to recognize the reality that achieving a global treaty at Copenhagen would not prove feasible. No later than early this past summer, the goal for the conference should have been changed to working out an agreement on the basic architecture of a final treaty and the processes that should be followed to put that architecture into place. That approach might have produced a conference that accelerated momentum toward a final agreement. But no major country wanted to be the first to lower expectations – and thus expectations remained unrealistically high. The broad, nonbinding, generally vague agreement that satisfies none of the participants was the unsurprising result.

This conference put China in a position it generally seeks to avoid – as a central, highly visible player on a major global issue. Given China’s rapidly growing global importance, it is a position in which Beijing will increasingly find itself. It is of interest, therefore, to reflect on how well Beijing handled this situation.

As both the largest greenhouse gas emitter and the country expected to account for the largest percentage of increased emissions between now and 2050, China inevitably played a critical role at Copenhagen. Beijing apparently had three major goals: 1. to maintain the structure of the Kyoto Protocol and the principles of the Bali Roadmap, which placed major responsibility for emissions reductions and contributions to developing countries on the shoulders of the Annex I countries; 2. to avoid all legally binding international commitments in favor of preserving China’s own freedom of action in the future; and 3. to avoid becoming the target of criticism should Copenhagen “fail.”

Beijing prepared very seriously for this conference. Chinese officials caucused ahead of time with their counterparts in Brazil, India, South Africa, Russia and elsewhere in order to work out compatible approaches. Beijing announced its own greenhouse gas emissions intensity targets in advance of Copenhagen. And the Chinese set up an extensive press operation at Copenhagen, holding frequent briefings not only for domestic but also for international media.

All of that proved insufficient to attain Beijing’s core goals, however. China’s rejection of the effort to have Copenhagen adopt any specific targets for industrialized or developing countries by 2050, its refusal to support a call to develop a binding international treaty during the coming year, and its unwillingness until the very last minute to accept any language that might produce international verification of its performance or registration of its own national goals in an international document produced much negative reaction. And, not surprisingly, given the vast array of situations faced by different third world countries when it comes to costs and capabilities related to climate change, the Chinese – among others – were the target of criticism of some of the world’s poorest countries, especially the small island states who fear inundation from rising seas.

This came to a head for Beijing in the final Friday night negotiation with President Obama and the leaders of Brazil, South Africa, and India. At this meeting, Premier Wen Jiabao acted as an international statesman, and he worked to bring the meeting to agreement on compromises that would at least prevent a complete breakdown at Copenhagen. But his agreement on language to open the door to some international verification and to register China’s targets in an international document produced, by informed accounts, startling and open dissent from top members of his own delegation. And while Wen acted as an international statesman at this crucial meeting, he, at the same time, played a role that China has always sought to avoid – making a deal that basically protects China’s interests among major players in a small meeting that would then be rammed through a larger body, most of whose members are developing countries less powerful than China.

Chinese diplomacy at this meeting overall was somewhat puzzling. Second-level Chinese officials showed up at critical meetings of heads of state on Friday afternoon – the kind of clumsy tactic that Beijing is usually far too smart to employ. The open dissent at the Friday evening meeting – including having one member of Wen’s delegation shout and wag his finger at President Obama – suggests that Wen had lost control over his own negotiating team (Wen told the translator not to translate this official’s initial outburst and then simply ignored him the second time he raised his voice). Was Wen going beyond the limits of his negotiating authority? Were members of his negotiating team protecting their personal flanks back in Beijing? Whatever the explanation, this initial Chinese foray into the middle of a global conference with extremely high stakes highlighted that Beijing still has some work to do as it assumes more central roles in global negotiations on financial, nuclear and other issues.

The Copenhagen meeting on balance produced some good news for U.S.-China relations. Much of the press coverage over the two week period focused on sharp disagreements between the American and Chinese delegations. But in the crucial final meeting Friday night, Wen Jiabao and Barack Obama managed to bridge their differences and craft solutions that avoided overt failure and resulting finger pointing. Given the enormous tensions and complexities, that is good news for the ability of the two countries to work together on major issues.

The fact that the countries in the room that shaped the final compromise consisted of the United States and four developing countries – no Europeans, Japanese, or others – highlights that the old world order is changing in very consequential ways. Very likely, on other major global issues, different groups will be at the table (but each will include the United States and very likely China, too). Copenhagen highlights that, at the end of the day, it is the major players on an issue that will disproportionately shape the outcomes – and that the major players are not the same ones who automatically had a seat at the high table as recently as a couple of years ago.

It appears on balance, moreover, that the Copenhagen outcome, despite avoidance of total breakdown, may mark the effective end to prioritizing the use of a global conference to obtain agreement on a climate change regime. If so, then the effort to deal with climate change possibly will now revert to some combination of national, bilateral and regional initiatives, along with negotiations among the group of major greenhouse gas emitters (about 15 countries account for over 90 percent of global emissions). This latter set of negotiations may take place in the G-20, the Major Economies Forum, or some other body particularly constituted for this task.

Insofar as this change moves away from the rigidities of the Kyoto Protocol in favor of devising pragmatic ways to promote reduction of carbon emissions by the major emitters as a whole, China will have failed in its goal of preserving the principles of the Kyoto Protocol and the Bali Roadmap as the climate negotiations move forward. But at the same time, the Copenhagen “failure” may in fact have put the world on a more effective, practical approach to addressing the core issue of constraining future greenhouse gas emissions. Other important issues, such as capacity building in and providing adaptation aid to the many poor countries who will suffer dramatically from climate change, also need to be addressed urgently – and developing the best approach to accomplishing this should now be one of the high priority issues on the international agenda.