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Was the Copenhagen summit a failure?

The Copenhagen climate change summit ended last Friday having attracted a great deal of attention from the international community. No legally binding agreement was made so the level of success of the conference is unclear. As a result there are many different opinions about the degree of progress made on climate change policy.

Naturally those who expected a legally-binding treaty were disappointed and a lot of critics have dubbed the summit a "failure." But the American president thought differently. Obama said significant consensus had been made at the summit. The Chinese government also believes that the Copenhagen conference made positive achievements as a result of the joint efforts of its participants. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said negotiations will continue in 2010 as the conference did not achieve all that was hoped.

Whether or not the Copenhagen conference failed is determined by the way in which success is defined. Take the Korean War for example. Neither America nor South Korea succeeded in their goal of defeating North Korea before Christmas in 1950. But after the war, both China and America announced they had won. This was because they felt they had achieved other successes. China reached its goal of preventing America bombing its northeastern territory and pressing America back to the 38th parallel. America, on the other hand, succeeded in restoring South Korea's rule of the southern part of the Korean Peninsula.

If the Copenhagen conference was "human beings' last chance to save the Earth", it needed a legally-binding agreement which supported action to reduce global warming. Based on the terms of Bali Road Map, the conference was supposed to review the Kyoto Protocol and reach an agreement establishing targets for greenhouse gas emissions reductions for 2012 and beyond. But due to various disagreements between the nations involved, the summit failed to reach an acceptable comprise. Having failed to achieve the objectives outlined by the Bali Road Map, it is reasonable to consider the conference as a failure.

Prior to the conference some countries claimed failure in Copenhagen was not an option. Now they are either unwilling to admit the failure or are attempting to blame other countries. No country will concede that failure was caused by its refusal to assume responsibilities and find a suitable comprising ground for their interests.

Any perceived failings of the conference were due to each country's desire to maintain economic development, an objective which is always prioritized above safeguarding global security. Developed countries have a national consensus for further development. They do not think it necessary to curtail their development in order to fight the global warming. As a result, they have to make enormous efforts in upgrading regulations and improving emission reduction technology to cut greenhouse gas emissions while maintaining development. In the meantime, their net economic output may decline. If their peers adopt the same measures, they will be under more pressure to reach their emission reduction targets by making sacrifices. But some nations may find it unreasonable if a history of high emissions levels is always used to encourage developed nations to make concessions. Even if they agree to make sacrifices, they may lay down certain conditions in order to offset periodical economic losses resulting from emissions reduction.

Developing countries also have a right to social and economic development. Those which are rising economically or were formerly colonized embrace development particularly eagerly. To narrow the gap with the developed world they will naturally seek a way to maintain development and gain help from other developed countries which have caused damage to them.

They will find it difficult to accept curtailing their development to ensure global security or to "develop responsibly" by agreeing to absolute emissions reduction targets. Development resources for developing countries are limited so ignoring Kyoto Protocol and accepting absolute emissions reduction plans could cause their disadvantaged economies to stagnate, potentially threatening their political stability.

The conflict between developed countries and developing countries is obvious. The two groups have different definitions of the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities" which makes allowances for developing nations and those which do not have a history of damaging the planet. There is a war among nations to protect their own core interests. In this war, the exact meaning of the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities" plays a significant role in trying to achieve a legally binding emission reduction document.

At present, China is working to achieve 8 percent GDP growth rate in 2009. If the growth rate remains 8 percent between 2005 and 2020, China's GDP will increase by 2.17 times, even reaching 3.18 times if the GDP growth rate is 10 percent. Because the GDP in 2020 is expected to increase 4 times (20 percent of annual growth rate) compared with 2000, China's GDP will increase by 14.41 times in the period of 2005-2020.

Supposing all conditions except GDP remain unchanged, and the maximum reduction of carbon emissions achieved is 45 percent, China's carbon dioxide emissions in 2020 will increase by 74 percent (if GDP grows at 8 percent), 130 percent (if GDP grows at 10 percent) and 748 percent (if GDP grows at 20 percent) compared to 2005, respectively. If the minimum reduction of carbon emission intensity reaches 40 percent, China's carbon dioxide emission in 2020 will increase by 90 percent (if GDP grows at 8 percent), 151 percent (if GDP grows at 10 percent) and 825 percent (if GDP grows at 20 percent) compared to 2005, respectively.

Clearly between now and 2020, China's policies will greatly affect the world. China's absolute emission growth is still large though the nation has made great efforts to reduce it. As one of world's major emitters, even the most optimistic estimates would place China's emission growth at 75 percent of that in 2005.

This is why China attracted the world's attention in COP15 conference. During the conference, China claimed that the nation prefers to take voluntary reduction actions than to accept an international agreement. The international community expressed concern that while China has greatly reduced carbon intensity, the absolute emission growth is still large. So it is understandable the leaders of other nations sought an international consensus on emission reduction.

Developing countries and their populations are in the majority worldwide. Asia is home to 5 out of 7 of the world's most populous countries. Economies in Asia such as Kuwait, Singapore, Brunei and Hong Kong have ranked the world's top 20 in per capita purchasing power but they are just small economies. While China's and India's populations are the world's first and second highest, their per capita purchasing power are only the world's 133rd and 167th respectively. Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh rank 155th, 173rd, and 197th respectively. Although a small percentage of Asian countries have achieved high living standards, most of Asia is still far from achieving industrialization and urbanization so aspirations of development are justified.

Based on the aforementioned differences between developed and developing countries, conflict is inevitable. The solution is to improve developing countries' development model, change their extensive development mode, improve energy structures, increase energy efficiency and research and develop emission reduction technology.

In conclusion, it is possible to control the amount of emission growth of developing countries, particularly if they receive enough technical and financial assistance from developed countries. A joint effort by the international community is the key to continuing negotiations until an outcome is agreed by all countries. Otherwise, a legally binding document on emissions reduction adopted by both developed and developing countries will not be achieved.

(This post was first published in Chinese on December 21, 2009 and translated by Pang Li and Wu Huanshu.)