China in Copenhagen Day 2: Danish Distraction; Su Wei Gets Tough on the Developed World

By Angel Hsu and Christopher Kieran

A group of Yale Forestry and Environmental Studies graduate students are following the Chinese negotiations team over the two weeks. These posts are originally being featured on Green Leap Forward and also cross-posted on and the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy’s blog.

The China Information and Communication Center (中国新闻与交流中心) held an unpublicized press briefing featuring Su Wei (pictured center of panel), China’s lead negotiator and Director-General of the NDRC’s Department of Climate Change.  While mainly consisting of reporters, the event was open to anyone – well, just about any one of 50 people with their ear to the ground who managed to squeeze in early before crowds more were turned away.  We were two of the lucky few who successfully navigated to the quiet back corner of the Bella Center, near the Chinese delegation’s offices, where the briefing took place.  The briefing also came after China and the G-77 delegations canceled their press conferences this afternoon, only to restage them later in the day, supposedly in response to some controversy over leaked Danish draft text.  But more on this later.

Mr. Su was completely unabashed when it came to his comments regarding developed country commitments.  Targeted amongst his criticisms were the European Union, Japan, and the United States.

  • During the European Union’s briefing earlier today, representatives compared China’s carbon intensity target to commitments by the European Union, suggesting that China’s target isn’t strong enough.  Mr. Su said that if the E.U. wants to make any comparisons, it should compare the E.U.’s commitments under the Kyoto Protocol with their actual performance to date.  Those are fighting words.  He also said that China’s carbon intensity target is completely incomparable with total emissions reductions and that it’s foolish to compare China’s recently announced target with reductions required from developed countries.  After citing numbers that made it appear that the E.U. was not substantively racheting up their emission reductions for the second Kyoto commitment period, Mr. Su asked the audience whether we thought their commitments were truly “ambitious, meaningful, and substantive,” allowing the translator to take a break and making his point clear in plain English.
  • In response to a question about Japan’s commitments and whether they were doing enough in terms of financing, transfer of know-how and technology, Mr. Su lauded their promise to reduce emissions 25 percent by 2020 and the positive progress they’ve made thus far. However, even the Japanese shouldn’t feel self-satisfied, as the premise for their 25 percent reductions is based on the U.S. also making commitments in line with the Kyoto Protocol.  And, as we all know, the prospect of the U.S. signing on to Kyoto is as likely as a sunny hot day in Copenhagen during December (God willing we all do our jobs at COP-15).  Therefore, Mr. Su concluded that the Japanese proposal de facto has no meaning.
  • Moving on to the United States, Mr. Su said that Obama’s recent announcement that the U.S. would commit to reducing emissions 17 percent by 2020 below 2005 levels was “not remarkable, not notable,” again using English to punctuate his statement.  Mr. Su noted that U.S. emissions grew 16 percent between 1990 and 2005.  He pointed out the obvious truth that the proposed 17 percent reduction (which is passing as slowly as chewing gum through the U.S. Senate’s backlogged intestinal tract) amounts to only a 1 percent reduction as far as the Kyoto Protocol is concerned.

It’s no surprise that Mr. Su harped back to the principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR) at multiple points of the briefing.  Under the Kyoto Protocol, which encapsulates CBDR and to which all Parties agreed, China doesn’t have explicit responsibility to reduce emissions.  The pressure to commit to reductions comes from developed countries that often cite trade and competitiveness concerns if China also doesn’t sign on to reductions.  As we heard repeatedly from Mr. Su, historical emissions matter, as the cumulative emissions of the E.U. and U.S. are much larger than China’s.  From China’s perspective, the carbon intensity reductions they have put on the table are an offering where none is necessary.  Such an action represents their goodwill and a “responsible attitude,” according to Su.

A question was asked about if and when China would consider peaking its carbon emissions (see previou spost “Peaking Duck:Beijing’s growing appetite for climate action“)  Mr. Su basically reiterated how unfair he felt it was to talk about developing country peak emissions at this point and that developed countries should shoot for achieving their pick as soon as possible.  He also said because China was still industrializing and heavily reliant on coal and other fossil fuels, it would be difficult to predict a peak.

The briefing also came after China and the G-77 delegations canceled their press conferences this afternoon, reportedly due to panic onset when a Danish text was leaked that would supposedlyt give more power to developed countries. TheGuardian provides a summary of some of the key tenets of this “secret draft agreement:”

In particular, it is understood to:

  • Force developing countries to agree to specific emission cuts and measures that were not part of the original UN agreement;
  • Divide poor countries further by creating a new category of developing countries called “the most vulnerable
  • Weaken the UN’s role in handling climate finance;
  • Not allow poor countries to emit more than 1.44 tonnes of carbon per person by 2050, while allowing rich countries to emit 2.67 tonnes.

(We have not yet verified how the Guardian got to these numbers, as the leaked Danish text does not make mention of specific quantities. The current disparity in per capita emissions between developing and developed countries is much larger than this, meaning it would take a lot for both developed and developing countries to reach these levels.  We hope to address this in a later post.)

Surprisingly, it seemed that third-party observers had more knowledge of the sensitive texts.  When asked what he thought about the Danish proposal to require developing countries to determine a peak year for collective emissions (Article 9), Mr. Su responded that he was unaware of the text and that discussions of peak emission years for developing countries was premature.  In the United States’ briefing for NGOs an hour later, Deputy Special Envoy for Climate Change Jonathan Pershing also downplayed the significance of the Danish proposal, saying that there were multiple Danish texts circulating and that the hosts wouldn’t be doing their job without offering more food for fodder.  It seems to us that this may have been a strategic move on the part of Pershing and the U.S. to lessen some of the initial hysteria rippling through the developing country parties.  Or perhaps lead negotiators really were too busy hammering out texts behind closed doors that they didn’t have time to check their e-mail.

[Note by Julian:  It now seems that Guardian may have been reviewing what appears to be an early draft that has since undergone "extensive revisions" in consultation with both developed and developing countries, reveals ChinaDialogue.  The Danish Government itself is denying the existence of a “secret draft for a new Copenhagen Agreement” but rather “many working papers used for testing various positions.”  See also this analysis by my colleague as to how all this is "typical overblown COP drama."  Let's also not forget that the BASIC countries (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) also have their own "secret text" outlining pretty tough negotation stances (see previous post "Green Hops: BASIC Instinct, New Energy Plans, Natural Gas Deals").]