At the end of the Copenhagen climate change summit, Ed Miliband, the UK secretary of state for energy and climate change, said he was disappointed in the conference’s result. Legally binding commitments on carbon emissions cuts had met with "impossible resistance from a small number of developing countries, including China."
He could not have been that surprised. Going into the conference, China had been clear in its opposition to binding targets for carbon emissions cuts, arguing that primary responsibility for this lay with developed countries.
That is not to say that Beijing was opposed to some kind of reduction on its own; in late November, the State Council pledged to reduce carbon intensity – that is, emissions per unit of GDP – by 40-45% from 2005 levels by 2020. China has long trumpeted such energy and carbon efficiency goals, and they are expected to feature in the 12th Five-Year Plan. However, given China’s rapid growth, such a reduction in intensity wouldn’t translate into significant cuts in overall emissions.
The Copenhagen deal was thus a necessary compromise. Although it lacked binding, transparent and legally enforceable targets, it included a commitment from China to publicly announce its emissions cuts every two years and list its commitments by the end of January.
This commitment is less modest than it sounds. The US had entered Copenhagen seeking strict international verification processes for emissions cuts, and the issue quickly became a sticking point in the talks. China was reluctant to submit to external checks, preferring to reduce emissions voluntarily and without external assistance and financing. Its eventual willingness to submit to a limited degree of international verification represented an important concession to reaching an agreement.
That delegates only consented to "take note" of the agreement may have been disappointing for some – US President Barack Obama’s own speech at the conference said an accord without binding targets would be "empty words on a page" – but it was an agreement of a sort.
Five countries – Brazil, China, the US, South Africa and India – worked out the document, which included the aim of limiting global temperature rises to 2 degrees Celsius, pledged US$30 billion in aid to developing nations over the next three years – potentially rising to US$100 billion a year by 2020 – and included verification guidelines.
Miliband’s criticisms aside, China did not play the role of a spoiler that has been portrayed. Premier Wen Jiabao’s speech to the conference gave no ground on the concept of "common but differentiated responsibilities," by which China justified its insistence on developed countries taking the lead in cutting emissions. However, the speech was rightfully seen as a clear indication of China’s green intentions.
Yang Ailun, Greenpeace China’s climate and energy manager said after the speech that it "demonstrates China’s strong determination to do its fair share as a developing country to reduce its carbon emission growth."
Rather than a disappointment, the Copenhagen agreement is more correctly seen, in the words of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, as "an essential beginning." Few had reasonably expected a binding international agreement to come out of the conference.
A larger test may come next year, when Ban said countries must pass a legally binding treaty, codifying climate change rules into international law. As in Copenhagen, China will be central to any deal.