The end of idealism

The failure of climate talks in Copenhagen exposed some uncomfortable truths about the current global order, argues Tang Wei.

UN-led climate talks drew to a close in Copenhagen on December 19. Although a weak outcome had been widely predicted, many were still shocked by just how little the conference managed to achieve.

The World Resources Institute had listed five indicators for success at Copenhagen: targets, timetables and actions for cutting emissions; funding for global climate action; common standards for tracking emissions reductions; a peer review mechanism for measurement, reporting and verification of cuts; and a legally-binding climate agreement. The conference failed on virtually all counts.

Al Gore may believe a carbon pricing mechanism can create a link between emissions reductions and incentives in daily life, but the negotiations achieved almost nothing in this regard. The only concrete achievements were the statement of intent on the need for urgent global action on climate change, and the US$100 billion (683 billion yuan) in aid from developed nations to the developing world and island nations to be disbursed from 2020.

The endless stream of proposals put forward at the negotiations – and accompanying diplomatic onslaughts – highlighted how much disagreement still surrounds four basic issues; namely, emissions cuts by developed nations; emissions caps for developing nations; assistance to poor nations; and a future emissions reduction deal. Clearly, there are still barriers to joint action on climate change.

There is a limit to the world’s capacity for greenhouse gases and the international community must curb the emissions of individual nations. But they must do so while taking into account economic growth, inter-generational equality and human survival. The result is tension between environmental capacity and development needs.

At the same time, if we are to slow down climate change, we need innovation in new energy sources and a technological revolution. These areas will affect any nation’s basic ability to compete and influence changes in the international system.

Climate change has gradually morphed from a matter of science and environmental diplomacy into one of economics and geopolitics. Developed and developing world camps have split into three groups: the European Union, the US-led Umbrella Group, and the Group of 77, a loose coalition of 130 developing countries, including China. Within these, there are further divisions – eastern and western Europe; the United States, Japan and Australia; the African Union; island nations; and the BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India, China) group. The multiple dealings and checks and balances created by this system make for exceptionally complex negotiations.

In the past, the most prominent characteristic of climate talks has been to pre-empt the other side and make concessions, or to propose environmental protection measures – with conditions attached. But all the signs at Copenhagen suggest the differing interests of small island nations and superpowers cannot always be settled by negotiations and discussion.

The Copenhagen talks have overturned some accepted beliefs; for example, that climate change is a classic, non-traditional security issue that can only be solved by global cooperation, and that doing so will create new areas of growth for all nations.

This idealistic thinking ignores the fact that action by sovereign nations is invariably driven by their own ecological vulnerability, the costs of emissions cuts and special interests. No nation will sacrifice its own welfare for the sake of the world’s – even if it means disaster for others.

Realism may be cruel, but it makes clear that the existing system of international governance is powerless in the face of irresponsible superpowers; and that the current arrangements, above all, serve the interests of northern nations. People once believed that the election of president Barack Obama would lead to fundamental change in US climate change policy – that the United States would start to consider its image as an international leader and the competitiveness of its green industries and thus commit to mandatory emission reductions and a return to multilateralism.

But during the negotiations, Obama and US climate representative Todd Stern showed that, while the US stance may have softened somewhat in line with international trends, the new administration has done little to set itself apart from George W Bush on the substantive matters of mandatory emissions reductions, necessary cuts from emerging economies, financial and technical support and the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities”. Changes in US climate-change policy are therefore limited and, at most, merely alterations in attitude, intention and ideals.

From start to finish, US climate-change policy has prioritised its own national interests; it is designed to fight for the lifestyle of its citizens and national supremacy, even in the context of this global issue. The principle of sovereignty above all else still survives, even in the postmodern era.

Thanks to determined campaigning from developing nations, the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, the Bali roadmap and the two-track negotiation mechanism were all upheld at Copenhagen. But the future direction of development trends also began to emerge – developing nations will also gradually commit to emissions targets, and emerging economies such as China, India and Brazil should sign up to mandatory measurable targets and submit to international verification.

In the run-up to Copenhagen, China and many other emerging nations announced carbon reduction targets and used a meeting of BASIC nations to express support for the Copenhagen negotiations and their unshakeable diplomatic “red lines”. A string of incidents during the negotiation process showed that developed nations, on the other hand, were not prepared to accept and respect the interests and hopes of the developing world.

It is clear from these events that, in international climate diplomacy, the right to speak has to be fought for and this is how climate-change mechanisms are formed. We should not think that developed nations will surrender their own interests and provide finance and technology of their own accord, nor should we expect continued unity among developing nations when interests among them are so varied.

Developing countries will have to protect the just principles of climate negotiations and fight for even the smallest of interests. Climate change has become an accepted part of political discourse, but that does not mean, as some Chinese academics have suggested, that we should adopt mandatory emission targets too soon and surrender our development rights and future environmental capacity.

Emerging nations have already made remarkable efforts with voluntary emissions reductions, but it is hard to convince the developed world that these countries are already doing as much as they can. Red lines aside, emerging nations must let the climate diplomats know that we need, support and, as far as possible, will adopt measures to ensure humanity’s success in the battle against climate change – but, crucially, we should not fear pressure and demands that are beyond our ability to meet.

Tang Wei is assistant researcher at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences’ Ecological Economics and Sustainable Development Institute.

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