Kate Mackenzie The post-Copenhagen heat on China intensifies

“Nopenhagen, fiascopenhagen, slowpenhagen, COP out, flop COP, bad COP, the great disappointment” – a few labels thrown around by one market analyst over the conclusion of the Copenhagen climate change conference.

In fact, few seem happy with the outcome, apart from China and India. Now the recriminations have begun in earnest, and though the US and Barack Obama were initially criticised, much of the blame since has focused on China. China has hit back at the criticism, particularly at comments by UK environment minister Ed Miliband, saying it is another example of developed countries shirking their own obligations (though the UK incidentally has set rather stringent targets).

But the attacks on China are continuing. Mark Lynas, an environmental activist and author who advises the Maldives government on climate change, wrote a blistering account of some of the final hours of Copenhagen in today’s Guardian, accusing China of  wrecking the deal. In it, he describes horrified reactions from Angela Merkel and Kevin Rudd as China vetoed emissions commitments – even from developed countries, which were widely believed to have agreed to an 80 per cent reduction by 2050.

Further, he levels that Premier Wen Jiabao affronted other world leaders and delayed negotiations by sending a second-tier foreign ministry representative in his place to a meeting including Barack Obama and other heads of state.

Lynas’ article underlines how some of the smaller and poorer developed countries, who have nothing to lose from publicly criticising China, are voicing their disenchantment with the bigger emerging markets with whom they have little in common. Maldives president Mohamed Nasheed openly questioned the future of the G77 group in yesterday’s FT, pointing out that many big developing countries do not need an agreement and would prefer to a “business as usual” scenario.

Even the other BASIC countries, Brazil and South Africa, have expressed unhappiness with the weak outcome.

Of course China will see things differently. It may be the biggest emitter, but on a per capita basis it is far behind the US. As one commenter on Lynas’ article wrote: “This is sadly plausible and is consistent with UK behaviour ~1900 and US behaviour 1950 – 2008.”

The point that US commitments on emissions targets were less than exemplary should not be forgotten, despite its coming to the party on financing last week. Or, as Michael Liebreich of New Energy Finance writes, both China and the US have little to complain about:

So who fares well from the Copenhagen Accord? Candidly, the two largest polluters, China and the US. Speaking of the “deal”, Xie Zhenhua, head of China’s delegation, claimed that “after negotiations both sides have managed to preserve their bottom line”, demonstrating the dominance of economic concerns over those of addressing climate change.

Obama has not committed the US to anything new, yet has been seen to “stand up” to China over issues of transparency and international monitoring and verification of emission reductions. Similarly, whilst Premier Wen Jiabao can claim that he has committed China to curbing its emissions for the first time in its history, this commitment is very much in line with business as usual and there is no sanction for non-achievement. The US and China both left Copenhagen without having to commit to costly emission reductions, legally binding or not.

But much of the focus is on China, not least because, as many commentators have pointed out, Copenhagen’s outcome demonstrated China’s ascendency on the world stage – or at least, the retreat of the US as the global superpower.  The question is, how far will China put economic growth ahead of climate change mitigation? And how much does it care how it is seen on the world stage?

And just as importantly, how will the rest of the world respond, now that China doesn’t need the money? Border taxes have been increasingly mentioned by some European leaders recently – though not everyone has the stomach for an all-out trade spat with China.

The answers will set the scene for future global climate change efforts.

Related links:

The pre-Copenhagen positioning of India and China: Not always what it seems (FT Energy Source, 03/11/09)
China vs Tuvalu (FT Energy Source, 11/12/09)