It is becoming clearer that the Copenhagen talks failed because of China’s intransigence. Here’s an eyewitness account from Mark Lynas, a freelance writer but also an adviser in Copenhagen to the government of the Maldives, a position that gave him access to the negotiations with China:
The truth is this: China wrecked the talks, intentionally humiliated Barack Obama, and insisted on an awful “deal” so western leaders would walk away carrying the blame. How do I know this? Because I was in the room and saw it happen.
China’s strategy was simple: block the open negotiations for two weeks, and then ensure that the closed-door deal made it look as if the west had failed the world’s poor once again.
[UPDATE: The Energy Collective blog has an excellent compendium of Chinese reactions to the accusations that have been leveled at their country. They range from " . . . why on earth should China commit itself to reducing emissions? Or do white people have the right to emit twice or four times as much carbon dioxide as yellow people?," to "This government of ours is used to the empty rhetoric of big government and to seeking to maximize interests, being unwilling to take on responsibility, corrupt habits formed over the years."]
What’s China’s interest in wrecking the talks and pawning off the blame onto Obama?
This does not mean China is not serious about global warming. It is strong in both the wind and solar industries. But China’s growth, and growing global political and economic dominance, is based largely on cheap coal. China knows it is becoming an uncontested superpower; indeed its newfound muscular confidence was on striking display in Copenhagen. Its coal-based economy doubles every decade, and its power increases commensurately. Its leadership will not alter this magic formula unless they absolutely have to.
I wonder, though, whether Lynas is correct that China is serious about global warming.
It may be strong in wind and solar, but maybe not because it is primarily interested in averting climate change. One possibility is that it simply foresees that if its growth in coal consumption continues at current rates, it may begin running out in as little as 20 years, as this graph suggests:
Another possibility is that China wants to exploit its coal reserves to the greatest extent possible to continue on its path to global industrial primacy. Here’s how that strategy might unfold:
- Continue to stonewall any international climate change agreement that would require it to use less coal
- Hope the United States passes its own cap-and-trade legislation so that China’s manufactured goods gain more of a cost advantage
- Continue efforts to corner the renewable energy manufacturing market using its cheap labor and coal-based energy to undercut competitors
- Sell this still-expensive energy technology to countries like the United States that are eager to reduce their carbon emissions
- But continue burning its own cheap coal to further consolidate its primacy in manufacturing and strengthen its superpower status
And here’s the ultimate cynical view: We borrow yet more money from China to finance our debt, some of which is spent on more aggressive R&D to do what we do best: invent things — in this case, better renewable energy technologies, such as cheaper, more efficient photovoltaics. But since China has a manufacturing edge, it does what it does best: manufacture things that others have pioneered — in this case the better energy technologies we invented.
The result? We feel good about ourselves for doing what we can to reduce carbon emissions. China outcompetes us economically, and continues to emit greenhouse gases to its heart’s content. In this way it becomes the world’s preeminent industrial and geopolitical superpower.
Meanwhile, the Maldivians drown.
Too cynical? I’m curious to hear what you think.