Copenhagen Uncovers Developing Differences

The Copenhagen climate conference exposed conflicts between China and smaller developing nations.
By Michael Lelyveld
Email story
Comment on this story
Print story
A factory emits smoke in Jilin city, in northeast China's Jilin province, March 1, 2009.
A factory emits smoke in Jilin city, in northeast China's Jilin province, March 1, 2009.

BOSTON—A controversial climate deal has raised questions about China's role in the developing world, experts say.

Despite desperate attempts to craft a treaty on cutting greenhouse gases, the 193-nation summit in Copenhagen ended on Dec. 19 without a binding accord.

Some leaders praised a three-page draft agreement among five nations, including the United States and China, as laying groundwork for a treaty. President Barack Obama called it an "impressive accord," but he added, "This progress is not enough."

Others openly blamed China for leading the fight against two plans for cuts in global emissions.

"Both were vetoed by China, despite the support of a coalition of developed and the vast majority of developing countries," said Britain's climate change secretary Ed Miliband, writing in The Guardian.

Experts say the standoff may raise new doubts among poorer nations about China's position in the Group of 77 (G-77) developing countries.

"China was in some ways a useful representative for the developing countries, but in many ways it turned out to be an ineffective representative, and that's part of the story of the meeting," said Michael Levi, senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

"Chinese obstruction of a deal was obstructing direct assistance for some of the poorest countries in the world, and that was a line along which the talks began to break," Levi told Radio Free Asia.

Developing economy?

The conflict stems from China's ambiguous place in the Group of 77 nations. While it is still classed as a developing country, China's growth and its U.S. $2 trillion in foreign currency reserves have made it the third-largest economy in the world.

China's carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions rank as the world's largest, although they lag behind the United States on a per capita basis. The two countries account for about 40 percent of the world total, according to the International Energy Agency.

Experts say that island nations and drought-stricken countries in Africa will see little relief from global warming until both the United States and China make commitments to cuts.

"The issue isn't that China is the largest emitter of CO2," said Levi. "The issue is that while there are many, many poor people in China, there are also many, many wealthy people in China, and those wealthy people have a responsibility to control their emissions just like wealthy people in the rest of the world do."

Under the draft agreement, industrialized nations would set hard targets for CO2 cuts, while developing nations like China would "implement mitigation actions" that allow for more economic growth.

China plans to lower the carbon content of its output by 40 to 45 percent, but its economy is likely to grow more than that, raising its total emissions by 2020. The United States would cut its total CO2 by 17 percent, compared with 2005, even if its economy expands.

A reluctance to criticize

Critics say China's contribution to the climate problems of smaller developing countries puts it in a contradictory position.

"Some of the countries have very small economies, they're not very modernized and they have negligible contributions to greenhouse gas emissions, and China is number one and pulling away," said Derek Scissors, research fellow for Asia economic policy at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

"To put China in the same category as a greenhouse gas non-emitter, for all intents and purposes, just doesn't work," Scissors said. "It's going to be harder for them to pretend they're on the same team on this."

But Levi and Scissors said smaller countries feel constrained in criticizing China's emissions because of hopes for investment, trade and financial support.

On Dec. 21, Premier Wen Jiabao defended China's actions in Copenhagen, saying the country "played an important and constructive role," the official Xinhua news agency said.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang also rejected criticism that China had not consulted smaller developing nations when negotiating the draft text with the United States, India, Brazil and South Africa.

"These were untrue and irresponsible comments made out of ulterior motives," Qin said.

Differing interests

Elliot Diringer, vice president for international strategies at the Pew Center for Global Climate Change, said conflicts with China emerged at the summit because of differing environmental interests in the G-77.

"One of the things we saw more clearly than ever in Copenhagen was that diversity and some fractures appeared among the group," said Diringer.

The differences became particularly apparent after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced support for a U.S. $100 billion annual fund to help poorer countries cope with climate problems.

"That was something that appealed very strongly to the most vulnerable countries and probably led to some pressure within the G-77 on China to make some concessions," Diringer said.

But it is too soon to say whether climate issues will change China's relations with smaller nations that struggle with climate problems.

"This is a self-defined group, but I think we did see some splits emerging," said Diringer. "I think only time will tell whether the G-77 holds together as a bloc in this process going forward."





More Listening Options

View Full Site