China’s Victory at Copenhagen

This piece by Mark Lynas is well worth reading.

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.

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.

…Except that China, the largest emitter, would not have been part of the deal.  Lynas does not mention that China’s proposal to reduce its carbon intensity by 40-45 percent by 2020 from the 2005 level would have done nothing more than endorse its business-as-usual emissions.  You might have noticed that other countries spoke in terms of cuts in carbon emissions, not in carbon intensity.  What is the difference?  Carbon intensity means carbon emissions per dollar of GDP, so a country with a fast-growing economy can cut intensity without cutting emissions.  According to the International Energy Outlook for 2009, China’s projected carbon dioxide intensity for 2020 is 558 metric tons per million 2005 U.S. dollars of GDP.  For 2005, the figure was somewhere around 1,001 (this is actually the 2006 figure, which I have before me).  So, following its normal policies, China was already expecting to reduce carbon intensity by more than 60 percent—without taking any special mitigation measures, and while emissions per capita would climb another 10-20 percent.  In this way, China promised to do what is what going to do anyway.  Thanks China!  In addition, China refused to agree to any international monitoring, so even if its economy stops growing, and it does not meet its easy emissions target, no one will know.

So China is now the major stumbling block to a climate treaty.  Why?  The answer is surely that the Chinese government gives precedence to economic growth.  In other words–it’s acting in its self-interest … just like all the other nations.  It’s dumb to complain that China is now the bad guy just because it doesn’t do what we want it to do.  If western and poor nations want China to act in their interest, there is only one thing they can do: pay China to reduce its emissions.