Meeting of minds

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 December, 2009, 12:00am

The political accord reached at the Copenhagen conference on climate change, which was widely criticised, especially in Europe, now appears to have much broader support.

For one thing, it had been widely reported that the conference decided not to endorse the agreement but merely to 'take note' of it. However, under the rules of the conference it could only endorse a document that had unanimous support. Hence, the next best step was to take note of it, a step not much different from an endorsement.

Certainly, the United Nations climate chief, Yvo de Boer, praises the agreement as 'impressive' and Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is urging all countries to sign on to the agreement thrashed out by US President Barack Obama and Premier Wen Jiabao as well as the leaders of India, Brazil and South Africa - so that work on transforming the political agreement into a legally binding treaty can begin.

A multibillion dollar fund to help poorer countries deal with global warming will become operational next month but it will only be available to countries that accept the accord.

It also turns out that an event widely described as a 'snub' by China of Obama may have been something quite different. At a meeting of leaders called by the United States, Wen was absent and China was represented by Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei.

A detailed account of Wen's activities in Copenhagen, posted on the Foreign Ministry's website and written by Chinese journalists accompanying the premier, reported that he was unaware of the meeting until 'a foreign leader' mentioned that there would be a small-group meeting after the dinner to discuss a new text and that China was on the list of countries taking part.

'It was really absurd that the country that called for the meeting never informed China,' the reporters wrote. Wen left the dinner, hosted by Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, to huddle with his aides. He then sent the vice foreign minister to the meeting.

It appears that the 'snub' was the result of a breakdown in communications, with China not knowing of the meeting.

The Copenhagen agreement was possible only because leaders of the US and China worked together. The deadlock was broken in stages. First, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced that the US would contribute to an international fund that would amount to US$100 billion a year by 2020 to help developing countries cope with climate change. That showed American seriousness.

However, she linked the offer to an agreement under which all major emitters would implement emission reduction commitments in a transparent manner. Transparency thus became a key issue. Clinton did not ask for verification because China had made clear its opposition to intrusive action that would be considered a violation of Chinese sovereignty since, as a developing country, China's actions were being taken voluntarily.

China's willingness to compromise came hours later when Vice Foreign Minister He asserted that China's commitments were legally binding because they would be part of its next five-year plan. Moreover, he said, China could consider 'international exchange, dialogue and co-operation that is not intrusive and does not infringe on China's sovereignty'.

Thus, the ingredients for an agreement were in place. Still, it required personal diplomacy by Obama and Wen to hammer out a last-minute accord under which China and other developing countries would report every two years on what they were doing in terms of mitigating emissions, and the report would be subject to 'international consultations and analysis'.

With China's concession, the chances of US Senate passage of climate change legislation have been greatly enhanced.

The Copenhagen Accord shows that while the US and China are guided by national interests, they can co-operate when their interests coincide, not just on climate change but on other global issues as well.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator