When they release Copenhagen: The Movie, fast forward through the boring parts until you get to the final scene. It starts with the Queen of Denmark’s dinner on the eve of the convention’s scheduled close. Things pick up from there when world leaders make their cameo appearances and President Barack Obama is deposited on stage by Air Force One as the deus ex machina.
Obama had dramatically changed the rhetoric coming from Washington over the past year on the dangers of climate change and the need for an effective US and world response, but he was hamstrung in his efforts to lead internationally by a recalcitrant senate that was more focused on protecting parochial interests than in saving mankind.
Thus, the president arrived in Denmark with an agenda not to save the world, but to save the chances of passing US domestic climate legislation. It needed international commitments from the big developing country carbon emitters – especially China – and some means for verifying that those commitments were met.
China, however, would have rather had no deal at Copenhagen (as long as it didn’t get blamed for the failure) than one that endangered economic growth or opened up its carbon reporting to international inspection.
The country’s leadership, composed of engineers, has accepted the reality of climate change and recognizes the dangers it poses. A program has been developed that tries to balance the need for substantial economic expansion with a goal to at least reduce the growth rate of its carbon emissions. But Beijing explicitly stated in the prelude to Copenhagen that it was not interested in seeing its domestic goals turned into international commitments.
With these facts in mind, let’s cut back to the final 36 hours in Copenhagen. The Chinese delegates had steeled themselves for the moment when the leading actors would take the stage, anticipating that Western ad-libbing prima donnas would veer off-script and ruin China’s perfectly crafted lines.
If all else failed, which it did, the plan was to keep their star off the set to avoid any awkward scenes. Thus, Premier Wen Jiabao was chatting up the character actor Hugo Chavez on the back lot or holed up in his hotel room while the main drama was unfolding elsewhere. He was ultimately cornered by Obama, who (on purpose or inadvertently, the reports vary) walked into a meeting China was holding with other developing countries, and an agreement, the Copenhagen Accord, was eventually hammered out.
Beijing didn’t have a star turn on the public relations front for its role in the final days of the conference. At least in the Western media it has been cast as a scheming naysayer or pouting adolescent. While China would surely have liked better press, all in all it seems pretty pleased with how things turned out substantively at Copenhagen – and with good reason.
In the Copenhagen Accord which was "taken note of" at the end of the conference, China preserved the developed-developing country distinctions of the existing international climate negotiation framework, and achieved an agreement that its national sovereignty will not be infringed upon by any prying international inspectors.
Given the non-binding nature of the accord, it technically doesn’t "require" anything. As a developing country, if China chooses to become a party to the accord, it has until January 31 to list in Appendix II of the accord the "nationally appropriate mitigation actions" (NAMAs) it plans to implement.
NAMAs are defined by United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) as actions that developing countries agree to voluntarily undertake "distinct from international legally binding commitments of developed nations." Developing countries are already supposed to publish information concerning their proposed NAMAs, so China’s agreement to list them in a non-binding agreement is not a major concession.
The accord adds a provision that the updates on carbon reduction efforts that parties to the UNFCCC are required to provide every two years will now be subject to "international consultations and analysis." While some Western sources are hailing this provision as a significant win for the US, the reality is that it has no teeth. RK Pachauri, chairman of the Nobel-winning Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change, admitted as much in a news conference in New Delhi in late December. "I don’t think consultation and analysis gives anybody the right to challenge anything … Of course in a consultation, any party can challenge any other party, but does that carry any weight? It does not," he said.
Beijing hasn’t offered a specific reaction to this provision, except to say that it will never accept outside checks of its plans to slow greenhouse gas emissions. In any event, on this issue China did what it does best: It structured the agreement so that further negotiations are necessary before the provision becomes operational. The "clearly defined guidelines" required to implement consultations will take months, if not years, to hash out.
As this article goes to press it is still not clear what China will list as its NAMAs. There is always the possibility that it won’t list anything, but that is highly unlikely.
China intends to reduce its carbon intensity – the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per unit of GDP – by 40-45% over 2005 levels by 2020. This goal is more in the nature of a quantified economy-wide emissions target than a NAMA (which would typically be something along the lines of "we will close X megawatts of small, inefficient coal-fired electric generation capacity by 2015") and listing it would certainly be a positive step. China would be acknowledging some erosion in the sharp developed-developing country divide of the existing international climate change framework, and perhaps indicating a willingness to be more flexible in future negotiations.
By only listing actions that meet the traditional definitions of NAMAs, Beijing would effectively signal its intent to continue fighting tooth and nail to preserve the existing distinction between developed and developing countries.
What China lists will be decided in close consultation with its new best friends in the G4, also known as BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India and China). The rise of the BASIC climate negotiating bloc is one of the biggest stories to come out of Copenhagen. These are all developing counties under existing international climate definitions, but ones that are, or have the potential to become, significant carbon emitters.
BASIC’s primary goal is to protect the prerogatives of developing countries to pursue growth and resist significant binding carbon constraints. Such limits are viewed, with some justification, as unfair given that the developed countries operated under no such constraints while they were getting rich. But the new alliance is a force to be reckoned with, and no binding international accord will be agreed to without first passing BASIC muster.
The member countries met in New Delhi in January to discuss, among other things, their January 31 Copenhagen Accord submissions.
Where does all this leave us? After the January 31 filings (assuming no major surprises), the negotiations will enter a lull. Things will pick up again in the run-up to the next official round of UN climate talks between May 31 and June 11 in Bonn. These talks are a precursor to the COP16 conference in Mexico at the end of the year.
The aspirations of Copenhagen have now been transferred to Mexico City, but achieving a binding agreement will continue to prove elusive without significant movement on all sides. A commitment to wrap up a binding agreement by the end of 2010 was dropped from the Copenhagen Accord, and, as if it anticipated a long road to a formal agreement, the accord provides that "an assessment of [its] implementation" is to be completed in 2015.
In the meantime, China will do what it planned to do all along – implement its own domestic efforts to improve energy efficiency and increase the percentage of renewable power in its generation mix.
The final Copenhagen scene made for great theater, but the dramatic twists ultimately added up to very little. Despite the bad reviews for its performance in the Danish capital, China is counting on a long and profitable run at home.