Column: ‘Why is China acting this way?’

Published on December 22, 2009.

COPENHAGEN—THE QUESTION IS THIRD ON a list of eight, proposed in a fit of charity by the Washington Post last Friday, on the last day of the contentious UN Climate Conference. I think it captures nicely the easy, often unremarked assumption of the governments of the developed world, and reflected in coverage of much of the Western press, that China was the stumbling block to the ultimate success of the climate talks.

It wasn’t. China was certainly a crucial player, one of only two countries in my view with an effective veto on the entire process, but to suggest that the United States or the European Union served the world’s needs, while the Chinese acted merely to protect their national interest, is to grossly misrepresent reality.

To belabor what should be obvious: The Post could have rephrased the question as follows, “Why is the United States acting this way?” and the new formula would have been equally true, and equally false.

The European Union was in the best position to advance the talks, on the two most important issues at stake in the negotiations. It had committed to a 20-percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions over 1990 levels by 2020; it had even signaled that it was ready to raise this target to 30 percent if other blocs committed themselves to higher targets. And it had raised about $10 billion to contribute, in the next three years, to the so-called fast start fund to help developing countries fight the adverse impact of climate change. Crucially, these commitments weren’t mere proposals; they had already been written into legislation.

And yet, in a candid news conference held at 2 a.m. on Saturday, the day after the conference was due to conclude, the president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, confided that no one—not even within the EU—had sought to bring pressure on the bloc to raise its emission reduction target to 30 percent. “There was in fact no request for the European Union to increase their offer.” Indeed, Barroso said, there was pressure to lower their target, to be more aligned with those of others. (He spoke, eloquently, of that “powerful argument, the argument of consensus.”)

The US was exceptionally, stick-to-the-script clear about two defining parameters for negotiation: that while it was happy to be engaged in the negotiations again it was constrained by its legislative processes at home, and that the climate legislation it was confident would finally become law next year was essentially “about jobs.” (Meaning, that it would spur job creation in the United States; that it would, as US Rep. Ed Markey said, unapologetically, ignite an eco-entrepreneurial explosion, “the greatest ecological revolution,” to rival the IT revolution.)

And yet, many developing countries questioned the lack of ambition in the US’ emission reduction target: 17 percent by 2020, over 2005 levels, which effectively means a reduction of only 4 percent over 1990 levels. US Special Envoy on Climate Change Todd Stern, in a mid-week news conference, minimized the difference, argued for the long-term view (until 2050)—and also wondered aloud why “1990 … could be treated as sacrosanct.”

China, still officially classified as a developing country, followed its own national interests too: It acknowledged its leadership role as the world’s largest current source of emissions and the world’s fastest-growing major economy by voluntarily pledging a 40-percent reduction by 2020 in “carbon intensity,” essentially a ratio between carbon emissions and GDP. (This formula actually allows carbon emissions to grow, as China pursues development.) It also refused to allow international, independent verification of its compliance with reduction targets, arguing that these were intrusive and infringed on national sovereignty.

This position was roundly (and deservedly) criticized—but it is no more “unreasonable” than, say, the Americans’ insistence on their 2005 benchmark, rather than the much more widely used standard of 1990.

To hear China talk, say through the articulate Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei, it was only reasonable for a sovereign country engaged deeply in international negotiations to insist on non-intrusive procedures, a principle that had already been agreed upon. “I know many friends are concerned, have expressed interest in this issue,” he said, but “the Bali [Action Plan, forged in 2007] has clear stipulations regarding MRV [monitor-review-verify requirements].”

But the most notable thing about He Yafei’s news conference on Thursday afternoon was that, at the end of it, he signaled China’s readiness to concede some ground on the verification issue, as a direct response to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s exquisitely timed announcement earlier that day about the United States’ readiness to help raise contributions to a $100-billion-a-year fund for climate change initiatives by 2020.

It was a surprise, then, that US President Barack Obama’s much-anticipated but thoroughly disappointing speech on Friday morning failed to even acknowledge the Chinese concession. Indeed, with an eye on the North American media market, Obama instead chose to lecture China about reciprocity, with Premier Wen Jiabao smoldering in silence. Even after this, however, the AP, the AFP, the New York Times, even the Guardian (for my money the best media organization, by far, covering Copenhagen), continued to assume that China was the one standing in the way. Ah, those inscrutable Occidentals.

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