Copenhagen: A Failure of Leadership

It was supposed to be history in the making when representatives from 192 countries met in Copenhagen to formulate a global solution to what some believe is the biggest problem facing mankind. Instead, it degenerated into a sometimes tawdry display of finger-pointing and trading of barbs between representatives from the developed countries of the world led by the United States and the European Union, and representatives from developing countries lead by China and India. Never has the world been so divided between rich and poor.

With talks in a state of chaos, the Copenhagen Accord was drafted on the last day of the conference. Although it recognizes that climate change is one of the greatest challenges of the present and that actions should be taken to keep any temperature increases to below 2°C, the document is not legally binding and does not contain any legally binding commitments for reducing CO2 emissions — a far cry from the original intent of the Conference.

Apart from its failure to produce a meaningful agreement on global warming, the Copenhagen Conference was the first real test of President Barack Obama’s ability to collaborate with China and exercise global leadership in areas where China and the United States may have different agendas, but which are of vital importance to both countries and to the world. President Obama, along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, and Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner before him, has said that the relationship between China and the United States is one of the most important in the world, and that the two countries must be partners in addressing vexing issues such as climate change, trade, Iran and North Korea. President Obama’s performance on climate change does not bode well for success in other areas.

Where did the United States under President Obama go wrong in dealing with China on climate change? Unfortunately, the President made the same mistakes that companies and individuals often make when dealing with China — he didn’t listen and take into account China’s concerns; he and his advisors acted unilaterally rather than in cooperation with China; and he failed to develop mutual trust with his Chinese counterparts.

Didn’t Listen — China’s position on climate change is no secret and was set forth in a document published by its National Development and Reform Commission (The “NDRC Document”) on May 20. One of the central tenants of China’s position is the “Principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities” between developed and developed countries.

The NDRC Document states that:

Developed countries shall take responsibility for their historical cumulative emissions and current high per capita emissions to change their unsustainable way of life and to substantially reduce their emissions and, at the same time, to provide financial support and transfer technology to developing countries. Developing countries will, in pursuing economic development and poverty eradication, take proactive measures to adapt to and mitigate climate change.

To remedy the current situation, the NDRC Document says that “Developed countries shall undertake measurable, reportable and verifiable legally-binding deeper quantified emission reduction commitments,” and that, “given their historical responsibility and development level and based on the principle of equality, developed countries shall reduce their GHG emissions in aggregate by at least 40% below their 1990 levels by 2020.”

He Yafei, China’s vice foreign minister, put China’s position simply when he said that rich nations, which built their prosperity on fossil fuels, are like people who go out for a fancy dinner and then, when a poor guest arrives late for dessert, demand that he pay the same bill for his meal as everyone else.

With the developing countries of the world following China’s lead, it should have come as no surprise to anyone in Copenhagen that different emissions commitments by developed and developing countries and financial and technological assistance to developing countries would be hot button issues. Yet, I cannot recall any discussions between China and the United States on these issues in advance of Copenhagen. Instead of trying to reach an accommodation with China, President Obama and his advisers chose instead to ignore China’s position.

If you want to do business with China, you have to first understand the circumstances in the country. It doesn’t mean that you have to always agree with and accept them, but it does mean that you have to know what they are, treat them seriously and deal with them.

Acted Unilaterally — To their detriment, individuals and companies often try to bend China to their will. It doesn’t work.

President Obama and the leaders in the European Union decided amongst themselves that $10 billion per year for three years would be sufficient financial assistance for developing countries, and a draft agreement was put forward by the Danish president without consulting the other parties to the conference.

Needless to say, this unilateral action by the developed countries was met with howls of protest from China, India, Brazil and other developing nations. “This is a party-driven process. You can’t just put forward some texts from the sky,” China’s chief negotiator Su Wei said at the morning session of the conference after an announcement by the Danish presidency on the draft texts.

It has been agreed that the only legitimate basis for discussion on the outcome of the Copenhagen talks will be the outcome of the work by the two major working groups of the conference, Su said. The move by the conference presidency “would very much endanger the successful outcome in Copenhagen.”

In the past, virtually all of the developing countries of the world were economic basket cases, and the developed countries of the world could dictate to them. President Obama and the leaders of the European Union forgot that China and India, two economic powerhouses, are now the leaders of the developing countries. Tactics that may have worked in the past in dealing with the poorer nations of the world will not work today.

Failed to Build Trust — If the end result of the Copenhagen Conference had been a legally binding agreement among developed and developing countries to meet certain emissions targets, then the ability to verify compliance would have been a key part of the final agreement. However, agreements to verify are meaningless unless there are agreed upon targets. Therefore, the correct order of negotiations is to first reach agreement on targets and then to discuss how to verify.

On his November trip to China, President Obama reversed the order. As reported by The Wall Street Journal:

In private meetings with Chinese President Hu Jintao on November17, Mr. Obama won some promises, especially on a key issue for the U.S.: China’s willingness to allow verification of its claims to curbing greenhouse-gas emissions. A joint statement that day by the two presidents included language on the issue that Mr. Obama wanted.

A little-noticed tete-a-tete with Premier Wen Jiabao the next day — overshadowed by Mr. Obama’s dash to the Great Wall — may have been more crucial, a senior administration official said. Mr. Wen wanted Mr. Obama to outline his proposed commitments to cutting emissions before China put forward a proposal. The U.S. president assured the Chinese premier that he would lay his cards on the table soon.

In other words, discussions between President Obama and China’s leaders in Beijing only one month before Copenhagen were centered on China’s willingness to allow verification, not on the targets that each country might find acceptable. Mr. Wen obviously expected to have concrete discussions and for President Obama to outline his proposed commitments while in Beijing. Otherwise, why come all the way to China? By playing coy with respect to the U.S. position on emissions at that late date, President Obama made light of an important issue and missed an opportunity to have a constructive dialogue on targets.

Instead, making a big deal of verification was tantamount to saying to the Chinese: “The United States can be expected to live up to its commitments, but we don’t trust China to live up to its own.” Rather than trying to build trust, President Obama told the Chinese flat out that he doesn’t trust them. I can’t think of a worse way to approach the country’s top leadership.
Global warming is a long-term potential danger, so the disaster in Copenhagen is at worst a missed opportunity. In the meantime, Iran is a very real and immediate threat to the Middle East and the world. Make no mistake, China’s agenda with respect to Iran is very different from that of the United States. Let’s hope that President Obama learns from Copenhagen; listens carefully and tries to understand China’s position before acting; does not act unilaterally; and does a better job of building trust with the Chinese.

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