Climate change row breaks out between UK and China

A public dispute has erupted between the United Kingdom and the People's Republic of China over who is to blame for the general failure of the UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen.

Ed Miliband, who is Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change in the cabinet of UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, wrote an op-ed in the Guardian newspaper Sunday alleging,

The vast majority of countries, developed and developing, believe that we will only construct a lasting accord that protects the planet if all countries' commitments or actions are legally binding. But some leading developing countries currently refuse to countenance this. That is why we did not secure an agreement that the political accord struck in Copenhagen should lead to a legally binding outcome.

We did not get an agreement on 50% reductions in global emissions by 2050 or on 80% reductions by developed countries. Both were vetoed by China,

We must work to ensure that developed nations in particular, such as Australia, Japan and the EU nations, deliver on the highest possible emissions cuts. And as the US Senate considers its legislation, it is important it delivers not just the 17% reductions offered so far but the deepest possible.


The PRC Foreign Ministry fired back. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Jiang Yu argued,

China made arduous efforts to push forward the progress of the Conference, and contributed to safeguarding the interests of the vast number of developing countries and adhering to the international consensus, which is obvious to all and beyond any doubt. The remarks against China by an individual British politician contained obvious political scheme to shirk responsibilities towards the developing countries, and provoke discord among the developing countries. Their attempt will come to nothing.


Foreign Ministry Spokesman Qin Gang listed what it saw as the successful aspects of the conference,

First, the framework and principles established by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and its Kyoto Protocol, especially the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities", were firmly upheld. Second, new steps were taken in relation to the mandatory emission reductions by developed countries and voluntary mitigation actions by developing countries. Third, broad consensus was reached on such focal issues as the global long-term target, financial and technological support, and transparency.


On Chinese Premier Wen Jaibao's role in the talks, Qin said,

"He appealed to all to build consensus, seek common ground while reserving differences, and strive for achievements at the conference in line with the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities' and the spirit of win-win cooperation."


The "common but differentiated responsibilities" phrase is at the core of the UN climate framework. It means the developed countries have to make crippling cuts in their economic activity, while the developing countries remain free to do as they please in pursuit of continued economic growth. The UK is willing to accept a heavy economic burden, as Milibrand specified. But London would also like Beijing to carry some of the load too, which it refused to do at Copenhagen.

China and its BASIC allies (Brazil, South Africa and India) did want a binding treaty, but only on the asymmetrical terms of the Kyoto Protocol. Indeed, they wanted a short-term mandate on the developed countries (only) of a 40% emissions cut by 2020. This was the crucial difference Premier Wen wanted to preserve. The term "win-win" is Chinese terminology for how to gain twice, by advancing China and undermining rivals.


In this dispute, the real question is which government better defended its national interests? London, which was willing to impose massive restrictions and costs on an economy trying to recover from the financial crisis? Or Beijing, which was determined to keep its freedom of action and maintain a program of vibrant growth that has allowed it become the second largest industrial economy in the world? The answer clearly favors the leaders of China over those of the UK. Beijing not only protected its own economy, but by helping to collapse the larger ambitions of the UN conference, gave the UK and the rest of the world the chance to save themselves as well.


William R. Hawkins is a consultant specializing in international economic and national security issues.