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Climate Of Politics

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he world’s first summit on climate change, recently concluded in Copenhagen, will perhaps be remembered most for what it failed to achieve. Amid wrangling over the share of responsibility and demand of future growth, delegates were unable to secure an agreement to take joint action. But it marked what future historians may consider a major turning point for the Western alliance, when the US President unceremoniously ditched his European allies to do a deal with emerging powers. The pow-wow at Copenhagen may also be remembered for having halted a widening rift between India and China.


The closure of the Copenhagen meeting has been accompanied by a shrill blame game. The Europeans, in particular have accused China of “sabotage” by its unrelenting effort to block the adoption of any binding targets for emission cuts. Charges by the British secretary of state for climate change, Ed Miliband, about China “hijacking” the meeting, or the sour quip by a Swedish environment official that no numerical target was adopted because “China doesn’t like numbers”, however, mask a bitter disappointment with the US. 


Accounts now available from sources familiar with the details of the crucial meetings make it clear that China was not the sole obstacle to the adoption of binding targets.  India, Brazil and South Africa fully backed the Chinese position and fought to keep numbers out of the agreed text. But China, as the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gas, shouldered the blame. The reason the BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) countries refused the European proposal for 50 per cent global emission cut and barred them from even stating their own target of 80 per cent emission cut by 2050 (below 1990 levels) was that in their calculation, it would end up burdening the developing countries with a larger per capita reduction.


During a dramatic, unscheduled meeting between US President Barack Obama and leaders from BASIC countries on 18 December 2009, Obama abandoned the European demand for concrete targets in return for China and the other countries accepting “international consultations and analysis” of their mitigation effort. This promise of some kind of monitoring was important for Obama’s effort to secure US Senate approval for pending climate change legislation. 


The European Union, which had announced its own emission cut targets before the summit and had expected to get its draft adopted in Copenhagen, was stunned by Obama’s concession. 


At one level, it was an example of all politics being local. Having achieved what he wanted for domestic purposes, Obama had no compunction about selling out the Europeans. The episode threw into sharp relief the new contours of power balance that has long been talked about but seen only in few flashes. Angry Europeans lashed out at China, but their real target was Washington. As a Chinese saying goes, it was a case of “cursing the official while pointing at the tree”.


Nor did China emerge unscathed. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was stunned to learn that Beijing had not been invited to a meeting of 21 so-called ‘friends’ that the Danish chairman of the conference had convened on the evening of 17 December. Meeting Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh the next morning, Wen bitterly noted the western manoeuvre to “gang up” against China. Only if China and India stand together, Wen reportedly said, can we prevent them from railroading through what they want. Noting that he considered Singh as an elder brother, he asked India to stand by China. Noting recent unhappiness in Delhi over references to Indo-Pakistan relations in a Sino-American joint statement, Wen assured Singh that China has absolutely no interest in interfering in India’s bilateral relations. 


In what could be an implicit acceptance of South Asia as a zone of Indian influence, Wen gave his solemn assurance that China has “no intention of interfering in South Asia”. Singh, meanwhile, reminded his counterpart that their relationship has a global strategic dimension that should also inform the process of developing bilateral ties. It is extremely important, Singh told Wen, that we must maintain peace and tranquillity along the border.


The European disappointment at Copenhagen may have sent a chill over trans-Atlantic relations, but the Chinese bitterness at the treatment it received seems to have produced  one positive result from a meeting on global warming — a thaw in its recent frostiness with India.


The author is director of publications at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalisation, and Editor of YaleGlobal Online.


boundtogether dot bw at gmail dot com

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 25-01-2010)

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