By Julian Wong Dec.23.2009
In: capital and finance, climate change, transparency

How Did China Fare in Copenhagen? A Critical Analysis by Someone Not in the Room

Update: Dec 27, 2009: The beauty of being learning creatures is that with new information and knowledge I can refine and revise my assessment.  New issue #8 is introduced below, breaks the tie, and tips the outcome of the negotiations in favor of China.

There’s been a bit of bickering between the Brits and Beijing (how’s that for alliteration!)  following the finalization of the Copenhagen Accord and conclusion of COP15.  I’m not interested in discussing that today.  Instead, I’m more interested in how the details of the accord measures up to China negotiating stance going into COP15 and as they evolved as the proceedings unfolded.  In other words, how did China fare?

No, I was not in the negotiating room, nor do I have any inside track to the minds of the Chinese government, but I have been following the public documents and statements pretty closely.  We’ve discussed some of the details of the Copenhagen Accord in my previous post “Good Cop, Bad Cop.”  As a reference of China’s negotiating stance, I use a collection of three posts: “Green Hops: BASIC Instinct…“; “Copenhagen Kickoff” and “China in Copenhagen Day 4: Back to BASICS!“.   Additionally, a comprehensive set of positions articulated by Premier Wen Jiabao on December 17, the penultimate day of teh summit, serve as a useful marker of where China stood going into the final 36 hours of negotiations (see summary in People’s Daily, Chinese only, rough Google translation here).  All quoted Chinese text below comes from this set of articulated positions which I will attribute to Premier Wen himself.  Premier Wen’s speech on the morning of December 18 is also instructive.

Let’s take the issues in rough order as they appear in the text of the Copenhagen Accord, and just for fun, I will keep a score card, allocating points between China and the rest of the world, awarding a point for a “win” and a half point for a “draw’.  I want to acknowledge at the outset that this assessment is made based on a limited number of public sources and may be prone to a bit of guess work, so I welcome hearing from those who might have different or additional perspectives in the comments section below.

1.  Fate of the AWG-LTC.  In the preamble of the Accord, the ongoing work of both the Ad hoc working group on Long-term Cooperative Action (AWG-LCA), and the Ad hoc working group on Further Commitments of Annex I Parties under the Kyoto Protocol (AWG-KP) are recognized.  In the BASIC text previously dicussed, China (and the other BASIC countries of Brazil, South Africa and India) sought to see an end to conclusion of AWG-LCA by mid-2010 so as to protect the integrity of the Kyoto Protocol.  We know by now why China is so clingy to the Kyoto Protocol – its very architecture, i.e. categorizing the world in terms of Annex I and non-Annex I countries, embodies the “common but differentiated responsibilities” (CBDR) principle that it is intent on preserving.  At the end of the day, it is hard to think that China seriously believed it could get its way in plotting a quick end to the AWG-LTC.  The United States has made crystal clear that it will not sign on to the Kyoto Protocol, thus necessitating the survival of the AWG-LTC.   The AWG-LTC will be the pathway to reframe the worlds countries in terms of major emitters vs. rest of the world,  or take a more differentiated approach to CBDR as I’ve argued for before (see previous post “Thinking Out of the Climate Box: Re-Examining Monolithic Approaches to the “Common But Differentiated Responsibilities” Impasse“), against China’s wishes.  World 1 China 0.

2. 2 degrees Celsius (and 1.5 too). The inclusion of the goal to limit global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels is seen as a win by the international community.  It marks the first time the UNFCCC has adopted this shared goal, and builds on prior political commitments this year at the G8, Major Economies Forum and G20 to this very target.  On the other hand, because China (and the rest of BASIC) were party to these political commitments (other than the G8), they were prepared to sign on to this (in part, as discussed in #3 below, to deflect numerical targets for 2050).  What is important to China is that the target is accompanied by the phrase “on the basis of equity and in the context of sustainable development.”  So while the science-based target is clear, it is qualified by a nod to the equity (another way of referring to CBDR) and development priorities of developing nations.

Another interesting twist is how 1.5 degrees C is slipped into the accord in the ultimate clause, not as a definitive global goal, but something to be considered after further consideration by 2015 (see Article 12 of the accord).  The Chinese no doubt had concerns over this, having publicly opposed the 1.5 degrees C standard (see previous posts “China in Copenhagen Day 3: It’s getting hot in here – Tuvalu raises the bar, China reacts” and “China in Copenhagen Day 5: No Country is an Island“) due to its implications for even more onerous emissions cuts.   Despite only being a promise to consider 1.5 degrees in the future, it is still remarkable that 1.5 degrees is mentioned at all, since it was only earlier this year that major economies even began recognizing the 2 degrees C target.  Draw. World 1.5 China 0.5.

3.  50 by ’50.  Here, I am noting what is conspicuously absent–the global goal to reduce global emissions by 50 percent by 2050.  This was a strict no-no by the BASIC block.  Why? Presumably because of the implications of such a goal to the mitigation responsibilities of big emitters like China.  (Also missing are developed countries’ collective commitment to reduce emissions by 80 percent by 2050, and there is an incendiary but unverified story (but by someone who claims he was in the room!) that suggests the Chinese were responsible for the exclusion of even that developed countries’ goal from the text).  The official Chinese explanation is that while they acknowledge the importance of the long-term view, the focus should be on near and medium-term action rather than deliberating on long-term targets (“中方认为,应对气候变化既要着眼长远,更要立足当前,要把精力和重点放在完成近期和中期减排目标上,不能让长期目标上的分歧影像谈判进程” and he repeated this in his December 18th speech: “ To determine a long-term direction is necessary, even more important is to focus on the completion of the short and medium-term emission reduction targets, and on to honor commitments already made, and on action.).

But this is strange reasoning because as soon as they make this point, Wen says that China would consider a 2 degrees C goal so as to show its sincerity (“为体现中方诚意,我们可以考虑长期目标设定为升温不超过2摄氏度是国际社会共同努力的方向。“).  Yet, the 2 degrees C goal is in theory probably stricter that the 50 by ’50 goal, and so if we want to be technical about this, the world is better off.  One can only speculate that the 2 degrees C goal would be more acceptable to the Chinese because it references a much more abstract end-game, and may thus seem more aspirational in nature and have less teeth, compared to a goal that is phrased with numerical reductions.  Purely from the perspective of near-term self-interest, Chinese negotiators will be pleased with the absence of these 2050 targets.  World 1.5 China 1.5.

4.  Peaking.  The language on emissions peaking did not specify a 2020 target year, as some countries were pushing hard for, but instead strove for peaking “as soon as possible,” and even then, with very elaborate and unambiguous qualifying language on developing countries’ right to develop (“recognizing that the time frame for peaking will be longer in developing countries and bearing in mind that social and economic development and poverty eradication are the first and overriding priorities of developing countries and that a low-emission development strategy is indispensable to sustainable development”).   This is exactly as Premier Wen ordered (“我们 认为,可以在成果文件中表明:国际社会应为全球排放尽可能早地达到峰值而共同努力。同时,为保持平衡,文件中也必须强调:发展经济和消除贫困是发展中国家 首要的优先任务。”).  As I’ve noted before, China has been touting this vague “as soon as possible” language for many months now (see previous post “Peaking Duck“).  And coupled with the strong language on development rights and the batting away of the 2020 target, what ended up in the final text of the accord is probably to Beijing’s high satisfaction.  World 1.5 China 2.5.

5. Mitigation Actions.  China is not going to get the 40 percent reductions it once demanded of by developed countries, but as noted in a previous post (“China softens climate rhetoric“), China seemed to show more flexibility on this in the months leading up to COP15.  Much more importantly, the accord marks a sea change in that for the first time in the almost two-decades long history of climate negotiations, non-Annex I countries have agreed to reflect their mitigation actions in an international agreement (in Appendix II, in this case), rather than merely national communications.  As mentioned above, this starts to break down the artificial distinction between Annex I and non-Annex I countries, and begins to re-categorize (although not completely) countries in terms of major emitters and the rest.  When China announced its carbon intensity targets (see previous post “China to adopt “binding” goal to reduce CO2 emissions per unit GDP by 40 to 45% of 2005 levels by 2020“), it was careful to  make clear that it was an “autonomous action” (some translated this as “voluntary action”).  Premier Wen himself made clear that the carbon intensity goal was a domestic action that was not dependent on the outcome of Copenhagen.  Well something happened in the 36 hours that Premier Wen uttered that position.  China looks poised to reflect its carbon intensity goals in Appendix II to the Copenhagen Accord after all.  This is a big win for the rest of the world.  World 2.5 China 2.5.

6.  Transparency.  I was personally most focused on this issue.  On the morning of December 18, I suggested that an agreement on transparency was close (see previous post “Has a U.S-China agreement on transparency been reached?“) based on the speeches by Premier Wen and President Obama.  What resulted in the final accord was language I very much speculated in that post.  Actions supported by finance or technology assistance will be subject to the full force of MRV–that was never in doubt.  Unsupported actions, however were another issue.  In the months leading up to Copenhagen, China’s stance on MRV of unsupported actions was a strict NO.  However, when the BASIC text became public on Day 4 of COP15, it became clear that China was beginning to show some flexibility.  As discussed before, China now seemed it would be willing to subject unsupported actions to a domestic “audit-supervise-assess” mechanism that would take into account  “any guidelines that the conference of parties may elaborate” and “be made publicly available for full transparency.” Furthermore, Premier Wen was cited as saying something to the following effect on December 17:

我们不仅要使承诺公开透明,而且要保证承诺的执行受到法律和舆论的监督。 同时,我们愿意改进国家信息通过的报告方式,增加行动的透明度今后我们也愿意自愿地、主动地做一些说明或澄清,也可以考虑与各方进行[不?]侵入性的、不涉及主 权的国际交流、对话与合作。(Roughly translated: Not only do we make the commitment to openness and transparency, but we will also ensure the implementation of commitments by the supervision of the law and public opinion. At the same time, we are willing to improve the national reporting adopted to increase the transparency of action. In the future we are willing to voluntarily take the initiative to do some explanation or clarification, and can also consider engaging in international exchange, dialogue and cooperation that is [non-intrusive] and respects our sovereignty.)

True enough, the Copenhagen Accord is now clear that unsupported actions are to be subject to a domestic verification system, and are to be reported in national communications every two years that are subject to “international consultation and analysis.”  Importantly, this wll be done in a way that “ensures national sovereignty is respected,” a specific concern voiced by Vice-Foreign Minister He Yafei. President Obama likened this system to that of the WTO.  The biennial national communications process is a big step change in the reporting requirement, considering that China has only once ever submitted a national communication.  This is the power of reflexive law, something I wrote extensively about when I was in law school with respect to corporate environmental disclosure, and would be equally applicable in the national climate change context.   While the details of this new process need to be flushed out, I think the early money says that both China and the international community walk away from this one as winners.  China was clearly prepared to move on the transparency issue–indeed it had showed early signs form the U.S.-China presidential summit in November (see previous post “Announcements of U.S.-China Cooperation Create a Path to Copenhagen Success“)–and did.  President Obama, for his part, now has something to take back to the U.S. Congress on this critical issue. “If its good enough for the WTO, it should be good enough for climate action,” he is likely to argue.  So while there has been some suggestion that China was out-strategized by the United States into increasing transparency, I disagree in this assessment.  China was ready to move from the get-go, they were just tough enough negotiators to make the developed world work real hard to get to agreement in the Accord.  Draw.  World 3 China 3.

7.  Finance.  The commitment by developed countries of $30 billion in quick start financial assistance for adaptation and mitigation prioritized for the most vulnerable developing countries, followed by up to $100 billion per year by 2020 represents the major achievement of Copenhagen, as I discussed in my last post.  $100 billion is probably only a third of the end of China’s (and th G77) request earlier this year for an international climate fund of 0.5 to 1 percent of the GDP of the developed world.  But I would not necessarily chalk this as falling short of China’s expectations because I consider that position a negotitation strategy rather than a realistic, genuine ask.  There may be an open question, though, of what China and the rest of the developing world really thinks of the fact that this $100 billion consists not just of public money, but private, biltareal and “alternative sources of finance.”  Still, I think they must be relieved that some real money in the billions of dollars range has now been committed, even if those figures now appear pedestrian in the new era of bank bailouts.

China had been a forceful proponent of financial assistance for the poorer developing countries and had been quick to acknowledge that it is not the “first candidate” for such assistance (see previous post “A Stern Warning? No Money for China–No Problem“).  A more interesting question that was not pressed as much during the talks was whether China itself would be expected to contribute to a global climate fund.  Here, I noticed a small opening in China’s position that suggests that some day, it might actually be open to be a contributor:

…尽管中国是一个发展中国家,仍然有1.5亿贫困人口,但是我们在南南合作 和双边合作的框架内为最不发达国家、小岛屿国家和非洲国家提供了力所能及的帮助,以便提高他们应对气候变化的能力和手段。(roughly:…although China is a developing country, there are still 150 million poor people, but we have, in the framework of the South-South cooperation and bilateral cooperation, provided assistance to the least developed countries, small island countries and African countries, and help to improve their ability to cope with climate change and means.)

Recall, for instance, that China very recently agreed to provide $10 billion worth of general aid to Africa, but part of which includes the building of 100 clean energy projects.  So really, why not?  China wasn’t asked to pony up money this time. but if international climate negotiators read this blog, they might just start pressing China to do so at some point.  Tough to divvy up the points on this one, because of the uncertainties in the details of the financing mechanism, so I’ll call it a draw.  World 3.5 China 3.5.

8. Lack of time-table for next steps.  As I explained in my last post, one of the biggest disappointments of the Copenhagen Accord is a lack of a specific timetable for a legally-binding post-Kyoto Treaty.  The expectation was that COP16 at Mexico City in December 2010 would be the target date for the second of this supposed “two-step process”, and indeed, earlier draft text of the Accord said as such.  Needless to say, this is a setback for global climate action.  This Youtube interview of Indian climate negotiator Jairam Ramesh suggests that it was India that objected to the deadline on the grounds that setting any such time table for a new agreement would “spell the death of the Kyoto Protocol.” It is fair to say, especially based on Issue #1, that the Chinese would be aligned with India on this point, and are not all the heartbroken over this outcome. Tie-breaking point to China.  World 3.5 China 4.5

9. Everything else. There are important references in the accord to the establishment of a technology sharing mechanisms, adaptation and forestry, but not at the same level of detail as the key issues of mitigation, transparency and finance.   This is understandable, given the political urgency of the latter set of issues.  The finance prong actually encapsulates technology, adaptation and forestry anyhow, so we can consider China’s strong interest in these subissues served.   Too premature to allocate points on these set of issues.


All told, I think China made out just fine on the substance of the Copenhagen Accord.  Based on the statements by Chinese officials, COP15 resulted in a “significant and positive” outcome.  Most climate advocates would certainly disagree if the yardstick was whether the Accord gets us on a path to avoid a 2 degrees C warming (it does not).  But if you are a Chinese negotiator, I think that the positive assessment is probably correct.  My unofficial final score ends up reading as a draw, with China ahead, but if I were to factor in the diplomatic fallout and finger-pointing that China finds itself on the receiving end of right now, I’d probably reconsider.  I’d be curious to hear what other think, so please leave your comments below.  Ultimately, though, the unoffical score-card was just in the name of fun.  Instead, the real numbers that we all should be keeping our eyes on are those dictated by science, the numbers on the thermometer, and those fancy machines that tell you how many parts per million the concentration of CO2 is in our atmosphere.

Picture credit: Reuters, via Radio France Internationale

Comments (8)

  1. Basant Singh Dec.24.2009@2:18 pm Reply

    Copenhagen failed. It’s high time the world should agree on something to keep the greenery of earth alive. Or the climate will deteriorate faster than we can ever imagine.

  2. gato Dec.27.2009@1:05 am Reply

    Great analysis. China’s demands that it needs to put its economic development first is not unreasonable. Many in developed countries (especially the US) feel that the economy should come first, too, let alone poor countries like China and India. We just have to do as much as we can to understand each others’ needs and to share the sacrifices.

  3. Kai Lukoff Dec.28.2009@5:54 am Reply

    I think the incendiary claim in point #3 should be considered verified (see below). China not only avoided 50 by ’50, but also any numerical reduction targets whatsoever, even for developed nations. As you point out, China’s reasoning here is strange; it does not seem to be negotiating in good faith.

    Jonathan Watts, The Guardian: “Three European negotiators confirmed to me that Chinese negotiators not only blocked targets for themselves, but also a target proposed by Angela Merkel for developed nations to trim emissions by 80 percent by 2050.”

    The Guardian: “Merkel wanted to set a target for developed nations to cut emissions by 80% by 2050, but in the last gasp, China declared this unacceptable. This astonished many of those present: China was telling rich nations to rein back on their long-term commitment. The assumed reason was that China will have joined their ranks by 2050 and does not want to meet such a target. “Ridiculous,” exclaimed Merkel as she was forced to abandon the target.”

  4. David Cohen-Tanugi Jan.4.2010@5:36 pm Reply

    Julian, thank you for sharing this insightful analysis!

    Two quick points:

    First, with respect to Round 5 (mitigation actions), there has certainly been a lot of negotiation going on about the emissions targets of both China and developing countries, although this issue didn’t turn out to be as central at Copenhagen as we might have expected. But it’s going to be very interesting to see how things pan out as developing countries list their commitments in an appendix later this month. Will China include its 40-45% carbon intensity reduction target, as you affirm? We’re following this quite closely but there is a big question mark. The world might not have secured its point on #5 yet.

    Second, I’m not sure how comfortable with the idea of pitting China versus the rest of the world with this scorecard thought-experiment. When the world loses a point, China loses too because it is as vulnerable to climate change as anybody else, if not more! A point for China’s negotiators is not necessarily a point for China. While this may sound idealistic and international negotiators are certainly expected to watch out for their own country’s interests, we have to be careful not to suggest that climate mitigation is a win-lose situation.

    Best wishes,

    [JLW: Thanks for your excellent comments, David. We'll find out very soon on your first point, I guess. On your second, I fully agree. Perhaps I downplayed it a little too much, but the point of the exercise was to assess how China came out of Copenhagen given its position going in, not so much with respect to whether the fate of the Chinese as a civilization is better or worse off as a result. Although subjective, assigning some form of numerical weighting to the different complex issues was the only way to come up with some defensible overall picture. At the end of the day though, as you point out, we are all in the same space ship trying to navigate ourself out of this mess.]

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