Sunday, December 27, 2009

What Really Happened in Copenhagen?

The post-Copenhagen saliva fights between countries are getting more curious – and fascinating – than the conference itself. The Guardian piece by Mark Lynas that has been widely circulated and commented upon, "How do I know China wrecked the Copenhagen deal? I was in the room," sounds a bit too angry to be completely trusted, but it does highlight two questions for me:

1)      Why did China not only refuse emission targets for itself, but also block targets some developed nations offered to commit to?
2)      Why did premier Wen Jiabao skip the final session of the conference, on the evening of Dec. 18th, when about 30 country leaders, including Obama, tried to hammer out a deal?

Mark Lynas' conclusion was that China's representative "intentionally humiliated Barack Obama," and also intentionally wrecked the deal. To what end? Lynas does not say.

On the other hand, Danwei's interview with The Guardian's Beijing correspondent, Jonathan Watts, provides a more objective and interesting perspective. To the first question above, Watts wonders if it's because China will be a developed nation by mid-century. (I'm not sure what exactly the criteria are for developed nation, but in terms of average income, China still has a long way to go. China's GDP might be high, but its low-income population is also high. In recent years, there have been increasing complaints on the sharp contrast between "poor people" and "rich country" in China.) As to Wen's absence at the final meeting, Watts says "This was primarily a defensive tactic. He did not want to be strongarmed into a deal." This seemed to me a more reasonable interpretation. 

Like Watts, I wanted to hear China's explanation. My digging discovered a detailed report about premier Wen's activities during his two-day trip in Copenhagen. The report was published in Beijing Evening News on Christmas Day, apparently reacting to Mark Lynas' angry criticism. The article cites its source as the Xinhua news agency, but I did not find it on

What's interesting about the Chinese report is not its defense of Wen (which is to be expected), but a few almost unknown details. The report on Wen's timetable in Copenhagen ends right before the final evening session that Wen skipped, thus avoiding any explanation as to why that happened. As if to forge indirect counter-criticism, the article cites the following strange incidents:

  • On the evening of December 17th, when premier Wen attended a banquet hosted by Denmark’s Queen, he accidentally learned from another guest that, after the banquet, "some country" was to hold a small-range meeting that had China on its list of attendees, however China had not been informed of the meeting. Wen left the banquet immediately to handle this and then sent a representative to protest the calling country's "ulterior motivation." (Which country was that? The report does not say.)
  • At 9:45am of the 18th, Wen arrived at the site for a leadership meeting that was supposed to begin at 10:00am. However neither the host country nor the UN Secretary General was present, the stage was empty. The meeting did not start until 11:30am. (So what is the report saying? That Wen was unfairly held up for one hour and 45 minutes, and Obama was not the only one left waiting?)
  • At 6:50 pm Friday afternoon, when Wen and other BASIC Four countries were meeting, Obama suddenly pushed the door open and surprised everyone. "Obama also felt [he was] a bit blunt," the report describes. "Standing one foot inside and one outside of the door, Obama asked with a smile, 'Premier Wen, am I too early? Should I wait for you outside, or join your discussion?'" Then Wen "politely welcomed him to join," and "Obama was moved" by this.  The report says it was this meeting, apparently right before the final evening conference that Wen skipped, that hammered out the final agreement.
These details only added to my puzzlement. I searched English reports for further explanation, and found an article from the Washington Post on Sunday, Dec. 20, which provides another version about what happened when Obama unexpectedly entered the BASIC Four meeting room:
At one point in Friday's tense talks, for instance, China's top climate change negotiator exploded in rage at U.S. pressure after Obama walked in on the Chinese while they were holding talks with the Indians, South Africans and Brazilians. After Obama asked whether the Chinese could commit to listing their climate targets in an international registry, Xie Zhenhua launched into a tirade, pointing his finger at the U.S. president.
(… )
Wen instructed his Chinese interpreter not to translate Xie's fiery remarks. When Xie erupted again, Wen, who was chairing the meeting, ignored him. After Wen handed Obama a draft text of an agreement that included verification language Obama couldn't abide by, the two men led a lengthy debate that ended in a working compromise, sources said.

Very curious.  Xie seemed very rude, not only to Obama, but also to Wen.

Note the contrast in reporting between the Beijing Evening News and the Washington Post:  the former emphasizes the Chinese premier's politeness towards Obama's sudden entrance, but avoids mentioning anything about Xie' rudeness, which the Washington Post focuses on.

Beyond that, I have been unable to find English reports on the other incidents mentioned in the Chinese report. And I'm still looking for explanations as to why China did not let any developed nations set their own emission targets.


Uln said...

Xujun long time no see. It is a pleasure to read you unblocked now that I am in Europe :)

Regarding the Chinese position: I take the relative lack of explanations in the Chinese press as a symptom of the lack of interest of the Chinese public in the climate change problems. Chinese today have more important things to worry about, even within the field of environmental protection.

Frankly speaking, living in Shanghai, I would prefer to have the money dedicated to cleaning the chemical air that is causing me asthma every day, even if this means the world will be 2C hotter in 2050... I think most Chinese think this way, and it would take something more than the Al Gore sensibilization programs for them to change this point of view.

Contrary to Obama, the Chinese delegation had nothing to prove in the Copenhagem summit, so they just left when they didnt like the deal that was coming. I am not surprised.

Xujun said...

Hi Uln, nice to hear from you again! Are you home for the holidays or have you left China for good?

What you said above makes good sense (as always), however I still have the question as to why China refused to sign an agreement that would include developed nations' own emission targets. What would come out from this position other than international criticism?

BTW, I saw a few days ago that you've reviewed "Snail House." I'm watching it on YouTube now, and am refraining myself from reading your review until I finish. I really look forward to it though!

Xujun said...

I forgot to say, your comment has a sensibility that only someone who has lived in and closely observed China could have.

wuming said...

Uln and Xujun,

I don't quite agree that China does not consider the reduction of GHG a priority. If I have to order the related issues in terms of its importance to China, I think it is this:
1. Energy security
2. Environment (or as Uln aptly put it -- the chemical air)
3. Climate change
The most China can do in terms of its energy security is:
1. increase energy efficiency
2. use of no-carbon based energy
3. burning more coal.
4. secure diverse energy sources and shipping lanes and pipelines
The first two of these goals are overlapping the goal of the overall goal of the reducing the effects of the climate change. From this view, it is clear why China chooses the carbon intensity as their preferred measurement for the reduction in GHG.

Personally, I think it is fairer and maybe even more effective if the key measure is a consumption based per-capita carbon output. Since ultimately if less stuff is consumed, less carbon has to be burned to produce these stuff. To achieve this, carbon tax weighted mainly (but not entirely) on the consumption end is probably the way to go.

Xujun said...

Interesting stuff, Wuming. A consumer-based carbon tax is a refreshing idea, but it might be quite a challenge to implement and enforce.

Anonymous said...

It's definitely hard to implement a "downstream" tax or trading system. There are too many points of sale, and it's hard to determine the carbon intensity of goods and services, especially if international trade is involved.

However, an "upstream" tax (on coal at the minemouth, oil at the wellhead, etc.) is ultimately a consumption tax as well. It's quite simple to implement, since there are relatively few upstream sources. It's easy to make the upstream approach fair to low-income consumers by rebating most of the revenue to residents.

The remaining sticky point is trade; that's why the US Waxman-Markey legislation includes "border adjustments" (i.e. tariffs) on the emissions intensity of imports. As I understand it, border adjustments are probably WTO-legal as long as they result in symmetric treatment of domestic and import emissions. Nevertheless big exporters with poor emissions/GDP intensity, like China, really hate the idea. On the other hand, there's little chance of US labor interests approving a significant carbon price without border adjustments.

Tom Fiddaman said...

There's an interesting new take on this, with Der Spiegel's release of audio obtained from the final negotiating session.