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Copenhagen: China's words, America's dollars

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COMMENTS

22 December 2009 08:54

Peter McCawley is a Visiting Fellow at the Indonesia Project, ANU, and former Dean of the ADB Institute, Tokyo.

What are we to make of the Copenhagen Accord document that came out of last week's climate change conference? A terrible failure for the planet? A confirmation, as Walter Russell Mead suggested, of the key role the US plays in the international system when the President decides to flex diplomatic muscle? Or, as Fergus Green argued in his thoughtful comment last week, a useful conversation?

In view of all the fuss and fury about the Accord it's useful to look at the document itself. It's a surprising document, given the enormous attention that the Copenhagen Conference and the outcome has received. It is short and shows every sign of being hastily drafted. Is this really it? Is this the outcome of a huge amount of work by 180 nations?

Actually, the 12 paragraphs were presumably something worked out between the US, China, and a number of other developing countries. The Europeans, and much of the rest of the world, seem to have been presented with a fait accompli in the dying hours of the meeting. 

Nevertheless, there are three aspects of the Accord which are worth noting.

First, there is a tough and uncompromising statement about the priority given to economic development and poverty eradication in poor countries. This phrase was presumably insisted upon by China and other developing countries. It is perhaps a little surprising that the US was prepared to go along with it. The relevant phrase (para. 2), which does not mince words, emphasises the need to bear in mind that '...social and economic development and poverty eradication are the first and overriding priorities of developing countries...'

The significance of this phrase is that it bluntly asserts the primacy of development and anti-poverty issues on the international development agenda over climate change and environmental issues. Most developing countries would agree with this emphasis while most environmental groups in the rich world would not.

This is not a minor issue. For close on two decades, there has been tendency for more and more items to be listed on the broad international agenda that is regularly discussed in UN, World Bank, regional development bank, and other main multilateral conferences. There are now so many topics listed on what is known as 'the international development agenda' that some observers refer to the arrangement as 'the Christmas tree.' 

Second, it is significant that the same sentence in the Accord (para. 2) goes on to note that '...a low-emission development strategy is indispensable to sustainable development.' In other words, developing countries are not opposed to the idea of strengthening low-emission strategies to promote development. Indeed, they have declared that they are ready to look for ways to adopt low-emission strategies provided there is financial support from rich countries.

The references to finance, therefore, are the third important aspect of the Copenhagen Accord. Again and again the point is made that rich countries that must provide the finance. The Accord notes that (para.3):

We agree that developed countries shall provide adequate, predictable and sustainable financial resources, technology and capacity-building to support the implementation of adaption in developing countries.

There is talk of 'financing by developed countries' (para. 4), the need for the 'the mobilization of financial resources from developed countries' (para. 6), and so on.  Clearly, China and other developing countries extracted their pound of flesh from the US as the Copenhagen clock began to run out of time.
 
But when it came to actually specifying figures, the US won the day. The Accord talks (para. 8) of how rich countries will provide 'new and additional resources...approaching US$30 billion for the period 2010-2012' (which appears to suggest that US$10 billion per annum will be available). And it is suggested (para. 8) that rich countries will:

...commit to a goal of mobilizing jointly USD 100 billion dollars a year by 2020 to address the needs of developing countries.This funding will come from a wide variety of sources, public and private, bilateral and multilateral, including alternative sources of finance.

These financial promises are so vague and so meagre when measured against the costs that poor countries face in adopting low-emission strategies while simultaneously expanding their energy use that they are virtually meaningless. 

China and other developing countries won on words but the US won on dollars. There will doubtless be different views as to whether this is a good outcome or not. But one thing is clear. Unless the rich world can come up with firm and honest pledges of vastly increased amounts of funding, the chances that poor countries will move towards the adoption of low-emission growth strategies in the foreseeable future are virtually zero.

Photo by Flickr user UN Climate Change, used under a Creative Commons license.

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