If the climate change conference in Copenhagen failed to meet the expectations of both developed and developing countries, it did make one thing clear: The United States remains the most powerful developed country and China is acknowledged as a leading representative of the developing countries, though not all of them are happy about this.
Copenhagen revealed the emergence of a coalition of large developing countries, known as BASIC, that consist of Brazil, South Africa, India and China, of which China is the most important member.
It also revealed a gap between the interests of the major developing countries and the most vulnerable of the developing countries, such as island nations whose very existence has been put in doubt because of rising sea levels.
The last-minute accord reached through the personal intervention of U.S. President Barack Obama in a session with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and the leaders of India, Brazil and South Africa salvaged the two-week conference from total disaster. At the very least, a political accord was reached.
This may well be the only positive outcome possible since there was such a wide gap between certain countries. And there were 193 countries taking part, each insisting on a voice. Unanimity in such a context was unrealistic.
Even though China takes pride in its close relations with African countries, the accord it endorsed was likened by the Sudanese delegate, Lumumba Di-Aping, to the Holocaust. He said Africa was being asked to “sign a suicide pact, an incineration pact, in order to maintain the economic dominance of a few countries.”
Among other things, the accord agreed to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius even though some island countries say they will drown if the warming exceeded 1.5 degrees.
While China and other developing countries acknowledge that they, too, have a responsibility to fight climate change, they point to the Kyoto Protocol’s principle of “common but differentiated responsibility.” This means that while developed countries have to accept binding cuts in emissions, developing nations need only take voluntary mitigation actions and are entitled to technological and financial aid from developed countries. Thus, China has pledged to reduce its carbon intensity, or use of fossil fuels per unit of economic output of GDP, by 40 percent to 45 percent by 2020, using 2005 as the base year.
The U.S. initially insisted on the right to verify that promises are being fulfilled. Thus, Obama said: “I don’t know how you can have an international agreement where we’re all not sharing information and ensuring we’re meeting our commitments. That doesn’t make sense.”
But China took the position that because its pledge is voluntary, it cannot be the target of mandatory verification, which it insists would be a violation of its sovereignty. Instead, Wen asked for trust in China. Moreover, he added, “We promise to make our action transparent.” And China agreed to report every two years on its voluntary actions to curtail emissions.
China knows its actions will be closely scrutinized. Climate change is an issue with serious ramifications for the welfare of other countries and, indeed, for the future of Earth. If China is not transparent enough, it will certainly hear about it.
Despite its lack of detail, the Copenhagen accord is likely to help the most vulnerable countries threatened by drought or by rising sea levels. Under the accord, the developed countries are to raise $30 billion between 2010 and 2012 to help the most vulnerable countries deal with climate change.
Obama has reversed the position of his predecessor, who refused to commit the U.S. to cut its emissions. However, the Obama administration needs the support of Congress to pass climate-change legislation. And Congress is unlikely to take action unless China, the world’s biggest emitter, is also committed to take action. So not only are the economies of China and the U.S. intertwined; the willingness of one to tackle global issues is also contingent on the willingness of the other to adopt measures.
The next milestone will be in November 2010, when COP16 is scheduled to be held in Mexico City. In the intervening months, China, the U.S. and the rest of the world will have their work cut out for them.
Frank Ching is a journalist and commentator.