05 January 2010

Copenhagen Fallout: China

It has been widely reported that China shares in the responsibility for the Copenhagen climate conference being largely perceived as a debacle. With the exception of a few U.S. environmentalists wearing rose-colored glasses China has been the only source of positive things to say about the Copenhagen outcome. China's positive statements might be read as an indication that they got what they wanted out of Copenhagen in terms of the negotiations. However, the Guardian today has an interesting report on the reassignment of the chief Chinese climate negotiator:

A senior member of the Chinese negotiating team at Copenhagen has been shifted from his post, prompting speculation that he has been punished for the debacle of the climate talks.

He Yafei, who was at the forefront of China's blocking actions on the final fraught day of the summit, has been removed as vice foreign minister, according to a short summary of government appointments by the Xinhua news agency.

The agency gave no explanation, but the Hong Kong newspaper Sing Tao suggests He has been punished with a shift to a post at the United Nations for failing to smooth relations between China, the US and Europe, particularly as tempers flared in the last hours of the talks.

During the negotiations, He described his US counterpart as "lacking common sense", frustrated the US president, Barack Obama, at his inability to make decisions and astonished the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, by refusing to allow even rich countries to set a target to cut emissions by 2050.

In public, China has hailed the "significant and positive" outcome of the Copenhagen accord, which committed the world to keeping global warming below 2C.

Privately, however, officials are furious at the public relations disaster of the summit, which ended with Europe blaming China for sinking long-term goals to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Part of the problem was the vastly different expectations of the delegations. Britain and other European nations intended to bang heads together to achieve progress and to set ambitious targets during the two-week conference.

China, however, was desperate to avoid any goals that might limit its economic expansion. Having announced its first carbon target shortly before the conference, China's negotiators hoped the event would be a chance for the world to applaud the progress the country has made to improve efficiency and boost renewable energy.

The vastly different approaches led to several messy and fractious encounters, at which He Yafei was usually the fall guy.

Successful diplomacy entails not just getting what you want, but also in convincing your opponents that what you want is also what they want as well. China's climate diplomacy was a partial success and also an indication of the difficulties that lie ahead in any Copenhagen-style global climate negotiation.