COP15 Revisited: The Behind-the-Scenes Debates

Another behind-the-scenes revelation about the COP15 United Nations climate conference in Copenhagen last December has emerged, this time in the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel. This one is different enough from the secret report from the Danish government that I discussed in my last post that I felt a new entry was appropriate. It has to do with the leaked transcript of a crucial part of the climactic negotiations on the afternoon of the conference’s very last day – Friday, 18 December 2009. And it’s quite a bit juicier than the leaked Danish report, since it directly involves superstar national-leader celebrities such as Obama, Merkel, and Sarkozy – although not Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who had indeed traveled to Copemhagen but at this critical stage was deliberately cooling his heels in his hotel room, having sent a deputy (one He Yafei) to represent China in his place.

On the other hand, the story here is not quite as coherent as the Danish report. Sending this He (“He-man”? Hu?) guy in his place was of course a deliberate gesture by Premier Wen to show his contempt for what was going on, but it turned out to be smart in another way since He turned out to be the direct verbal target of some very powerful Western politicians, along with Indian Premier Manmohan Singh. All this was not because of any sort of anti-Asia prejudice on the part of the other world leaders, but out of the very good reason that China and India had already decided that they simply would not go along with the sort of legally-enforceable national limits to greenhouse-gas emissions that European leaders (mainly) were trying to enshrine in the World Climate Treaty that was supposed to issue out of the conference, limits designed to replace expiring national obligations under the Kyoto Protocol (2005).

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was the main protagonist here, fighting hard for measures designed to limit the rise in average temperatures to 2ÂșC through this century. This meant among other things cutting greenhouse-gas emissions by 50% by 2050. Western developed nations had already agreed to cuts of 80%, but something would have to be forthcoming from the developing world as well if that 2050 goal was to be achieved, especially considering the explosive recent economic growth in China and India. But behind closed doors the representatives from those countries did not yield from positions that had already been taken publicly, namely that they weren’t interested in any binding restrictions and, in any case, they had no obligation to be interested – it was mainly the West’s fault anyway that the world was in the dire climate-change situation it now found itself. This attitude led Merkel to expressions of dismay and President Sarkozy to (politely stated) accusations of hypocrisy, while according to the transcript Obama tried to intervene to calm the waters, expressing a not entirely-useful hope that things could be settled “later, outside of this multilateral framework.”

The lesson I draw from this report is that the public stances countries take prior to such summits are generally serious ones, i.e. they accurately track the positions those countries will adopt once negotiations begin. The only real sensational element here, then, is the accounts of the personal interactions – sometimes quite tense – between the world leaders present. At least the picture of events from this leaked transcript gives the lie to the assertion of many commentators that at Copenhagen European leaders ultimately were left on the sidelines while the conference’s fate was decided in discussions between the US and China. But I guess a leading European publication like Der Spiegel would say that.

By the way, the reason all this climate-change stuff is current again in the news is probably the international conference now happening at Petersberg, Germany (near Bonn), intended to draw lessons from the COP15 experience. This is meant in preparation for the very next formal UNFCCC world climate-change conference, scheduled for next December in CancĂșn, Mexico.

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