Don't blame China, US for Nopenhagen
By Muhammad Cohen
HONG KONG - The Copenhagen climate change summit threatened to be the biggest
dud in recorded history, Comet Kohoutek, Ishtar and the Y2K virus all
wrapped up in one. The United Nations, its legion of freeloaders, and
environment group jesters spent more than two years and millions of dollars to
reach an impasse. At the final moment, China and the United States stepped up
and forged a deal that gave the world a meaningful start toward reversing the
growth in carbon emissions.
Instead of praise for their rescue effort, the world's two largest carbon
emitters drew intense criticism for their deal from many different quarters.
Not only was that criticism misdirected, but an
issue that nearly derailed the Sino-US talks points directly where the real
The road to what was nearly Nopenhagen began with the Kyoto Protocol on carbon
emissions, which applies to neither China nor the US for different reasons. As
a developing country, China was one of more than 150 countries exempt from any
emission controls. As a developed country, the US was given targets for
emission cuts, but they were unpalatable to legislators, so the US never
ratified the treaty. Together, the US and China account for more than 40% of
the world's emissions. Other key exempt countries include number four India and
Indonesia, which jumps from the top 20 to the top three when emissions from
deforestation are counted.
With the global climate situation increasingly grave, it would make sense for
the UN to bring these outliers under the emissions control umbrella in the
successor to Kyoto. Instead, the UN sought to enshrine Kyoto's flaws into the
new global treaty. It established a lengthy process of global negotiations that
would rely on consensus among nearly 200 nations to craft the new treaty.
The UN also embraced environment groups that brought to the table a 40-year
record of failure to make progress on the very issues now under the climate
change banner. Many of these advocacy groups also placed anti-Americanism and
anti-capitalism high on their agenda. With these fellow travelers, the UN
naturally offered no incentives or inducements to the citizenry of the
developed countries to do their part.
Beginning in Bali in 2007, the UN process was to climax at last month's
Copenhagen meeting with a global treaty to take effect in 2013. Despite the
two-year negotiating window, the UN itself made many of the crucial decisions
up front. Joining the UN process meant agreeing to the principle that a pound
of carbon emitted in China was different from a pound emitted in Japan or
Germany, enshrining the principle that the environmental mistakes and
misjudgments of the past centuries gave developing countries a right to pollute
with impunity now.
The UN process also meant accepting that Suriname, Timor Leste and the Gambia
should have as much of a voice in shaping the treaty as the US and China. It
also meant richer countries agreeing to make massive payments to developing
countries to try to convince them not to pollute. The UN tossed around the
figure of US$100 billion. No doubt that would be popular with the recipients,
the UN plurality, but as difficult to sell to developed country citizens as the
idea of cutting emissions by up to 40%, as the UN also demanded.
To keep the process moving on its terms meant the UN forfeited its proper role
as an objective observer and honest broker in the negotiations, even though it
had nothing to put on the table. The outcome at Copenhagen exposed how foolish
and flawed the UN process was. Before the Copenhagen meeting convened, the UN
already admitted it would not produce the grand treaty it promised, despite
more than two years of talks. Instead there would be another agreement to agree
In Copenhagen, delegates couldn't even decide on the basic parameters of a
future treaty. Posturing, such as a walkout by African nations, indicated that
many developing countries favored an ineffective treaty that protected their
status as equal partners rather than an agreement that would make a real
difference in global warming. It took the last-minute intervention by heads of
state to forge an agreement that basically undoes what the UN dithered over for
America's George W Bush administration took a skeptical line on climate change
for a variety of reasons, not all of them legitimate. But it also laid out some
common-sense principles for negotiations. The US favored exclusive talks among
major carbon emitters together - the top 10 countries account for more than 60%
of emissions. It rejected the principal that developing countries had a right
to pollute, asserting that all carbon was created equal, subject to
negotiations. Although these ideas may have simply been a dodge to derail the
UN process, as many suspected, the more environmentally attuned Barack Obama
administration adopted these ideas and sold them to other big polluters.
As the world's two biggest carbon emitters, the US and China would be central
to any agreement to meaningfully cut greenhouse gases. Even though it was
exempt from cuts under the UN regime, China recognized that it needed to act,
and that the US would not act without some measure of Chinese reciprocity.
So, the BASIC countries - Brazil, South Africa, India and China - and the US
agreed to cut emissions. As a group, they represent half of the world's current
emissions, a total likely to grow without mitigation measures. With those
players aboard, and no real alternative other than abject failure, the rest of
world came along in what the UN dubbed the Copenhagen accord.
The US and China talks nearly collapsed, and things could still unravel, over
the issue of emissions monitoring. Measuring emissions and other key
indicators, such as forest preservation, will be central to any agreement on
climate change. Billions of dollars will be riding on these numbers as well as
the future shape of the planet.
Monitoring by an objective body would be a vital part of making any treaty
work. The UN would be ideal for the job. The UN should have been positioning
itself for that role. Now that its politicking and posturing has taken the
cause back to square one, maybe the UN will dedicate itself to a role where it
can do some good.
Former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen told Americaís story to the
world as a US diplomat and is author of
Hong Kong On Air,
a novel set during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal,
financial crisis, and cheap lingerie. Follow
Muhammad Cohenís blog for more on the media and Asia, his adopted home.