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Copenhagen deal exposes the real climate culprits

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The United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen last month proved to be a historic watershed. This isn’t because of what it achieved.
Issue 2183

The United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen last month proved to be a historic watershed. This isn’t because of what it achieved.

On the contrary, the outcome—an “accord” that was only “noted” by the assembled delegates and that includes no binding targets for reducing carbon dioxide emissions—was an enormous betrayal of the hopes that had been placed in the summit.

Nevertheless, Copenhagen exposed very clearly the main obstacle to addressing global warming. Despite the evident danger of catastrophic climate change, individual states are reluctant to take on the burden of cutting emissions. Instead they seek to displace the costs involved onto their rivals.

They also use others’ failure to act as an excuse for not acting themselves. Thus the European Union (EU) went to Copenhagen saying that it was willing to raise its target for cutting emissions by 2020 from 20 to 30 percent, but dropped the offer when others didn’t reciprocate.

What ruled in Copenhagen was the competitive logic of capitalism, which constantly sets states and firms against each other. This is even clearer when it comes to the two powers that inevitably dominated the summit—the US and China.

They are by far the biggest generators of carbon dioxide. China was responsible for 21.5 percent of global emissions in 2006 and the US 20.2 percent—though China is much more populous, and much poorer. The US produces 18.67 metric tonnes per head a year and China 4.57 metric tonnes.

George Bush used the fact that the 1997 Kyoto protocol didn’t include China and the other big economies in the Global South as an excuse for not participating in it. Barack Obama, by contrast, wanted a global deal but he needed to be seen taking China on to have any prospect of getting the legislation through Congress.

This explains the strange dance that took place in Copenhagen, as Obama pursued Wen Jiabao, the Chinese prime minister, and the leaders of India, Brazil, and South Africa. He even gatecrashed a private meeting the four were holding, calling out “Are you ready for me?” and shoving himself into a place at the crowded table.


It was this group that eventually cut the deal that became the Copenhagen Accord. The EU, which likes to see itself as the leader in tackling climate change, was humiliatingly sidelined.

Journalist Mark Lynas echoed Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband by putting the blame for the failure at Copenhagen squarely at China’s door:

“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.”

This is naive and exaggerated. It ignores the way in which the US delegation targeted China from the start of the conference.

My guess is that Obama got the kind of deal he wanted. The Washington Post points out that in their face-to-face discussions, Wen made concessions on a key US demand for emissions reductions to be internationally verifiable.

Moreover, “the fate of any future global climate change treaty will now effectively rest in the hands of the two largest emitters.”

This suits both the US and China just fine. As the Washington Post also argues, Copenhagen offered “a glimpse into a new world order in which international diplomacy will increasingly be shaped by the United States and emerging powers, most notably China. Indeed, the events at the summit showed how the US-China relationship remains stormy and complex, constructive and adversarial.”

This analysis is slightly overstated. The European powers won’t always be sidelined the way they were in Copenhagen. But the summit certainly did expose the conflictual collusion—simultaneously interdependence and rivalry—that defines the relationship between the US and China.

This isn’t much of a “new world order”. Really addressing climate change will require a determined challenge to the competitive logic of capitalism.

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