Copenhagen: “China Won”?
Stance at Climate Conference Brings Costs for China
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is expected to say in a podcast that a deal at Copenhagen was “held to ransom by a handful of countries.” His climate secretary wrote, more specifically, that it was China that had “vetoed” crucial proposals the entire developed world and most of the developing world stood behind.
But did China really win? It kept the Kyoto agreement intact and avoided binding cuts, both of which helped to secure China’s policy maneuverability and economic growth prospects. Nevertheless, Chinese obstructionism–which included peculiar tactics like failing to show up to a meeting with President Obama–still carries significant costs.
In November, China’s premier, Wen Jiabao, decided t0 participate in the summit after a similar decision by President Obama. The same month, China announced a carbon-intensity target. The climate and energy campaign manager for Greenpeace China then said “China is in a more comfortable negotiating position.”
It seems Wen did not want to be seen as spoiling chances for a deal by failing to show up and negotiate in good faith. “They really care what the world thinks of them,” claimed the World Wildlife Fund’s climate change program director. More cynically, however, China feared that without appearing deeply engaged in international talks, it might face carbon tariffs on its exports to the United States and Europe–an approach featured prominently in the climate change bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives this fall.
But Wen also sought to protect China’s near-term economic and political interests, which meant, in particular, refusing binding emissions cuts or international monitoring of its emissions. It legitimized its stance by taking charge of the G77 group of developing nations, arguing that developing countries could not be forced to sacrifice economic opportunities for their impoverished populations to fight climate change that was largely caused by the developed world.
China’s strategy failed in two major ways. First, the developed world blames China–and not Brazil or India, countries that held similar positions–for the failure to produce a binding treaty. Second, even as China purported to speak for them, many of the smaller G77 developing countries broke ranks because they felt China needed to offer more. (At the end of the day, the conference was even unable to pass the final non-binding U.S.- and China-backed agreement, merely “noting” it, because a group of developing countries failed to fall into line with China’s approach.)
The first issue should be of the greatest concern to China. The European Union, disappointed by the summit’s outcome and reeling from being left out of negotiations on the final text, is furious at China. Both the United States and Europe are now more likely to consider import tariffs against China and other nations that refuse to sign on to a binding treaty, to account for otherwise unfair competition. The Financial Times, in the same article referenced above, reports that “being talked about in Europe on Monday…is the idea of putting carbon-related import taxes on goods from countries left out of a legally binding treaty.” The New York Times reported last week that French President Nicolas Sarkozy continues to argue for such tariffs. China appears deeply concerned, but it is not clear how far it would go to express displeasure with such policies, if enacted.
Could China’s stance at Copenhagen lead to a trade war? Is a U.S.-EU-led treaty that excludes China possible? How would India, South Africa, Brazil, and other large developing countries respond? What does this mean for China? Readers, I would love to hear your thoughts.
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