Copenhagen miscalculation
By Francesco Sisci

BEIJING - The headlines in many Chinese newspapers are about the agreement on climate change reached in Copenhagen. Papers displayed a photo of Premier Wen Jiabao returning from Denmark stating that "China made unremitting efforts at the UN conference" and that China would keep its commitments, no matter what. But the articles conceal embarrassment about the difficulties China faces beyond its expectations in Copenhagen.

Beijing went to Denmark believing it would be able to achieve great success. It had moved to frame a general agreement with the United States, and it had built an understanding with some of the major developing countries, namely Brazil, South Africa and India (which with China make up the BASIC group).

Certainly Copenhagen was not the disaster that only a few months ago it was expected to be. It did end with an agreement, whereas in the summer it was thought it could be a sheer waste of time. However, in recent weeks, there was a growing sense of a major breakthrough on curbing emissions. These expectations did not come through. In fact, at the last minute, US President Barack Obama and Premier Wen had to work almost by themselves on a compromise that could salvage the conference.

The banana peel on which it all slipped was the issue of verification. The developed countries were willing to fund the technology transfer required to cut emissions, but they also wanted to verify that the cuts were actually being made. This verification issue went directly to the heart of a problem that already existed between China and the United States.

At present, the Chinese Ministry of the Environment issues reports on Beijing air quality on the basis of its own findings. Measurements of the air quality in the Chinese capital are also taken by the US Embassy, which sends its results through Twitter posts that are blocked in China.

The two sets of data rarely agree. There are differences in methodology - the particles observed, the timing, the locations, and so forth. The result is that on many days that are clear and clean according to Beijing, the US Embassy finds pollution higher than the worst days in US cities.

So with no agreement in place on transparency of verification, and if cuts to pollution are in any way linked to monetary aid or international accord, the differences between the observations of China and the United States could explode in ferocious and public face-losing controversy.

For the Chinese government, now the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, the environmental war is fought on many fronts.

For years, Beijing sought to launch a "green gross domestic product" for local and national administrations. The measure would put into context the purely economic results by accounting for the waste and damage caused by pollution. But Beijing has not yet been able to push through the program because of strong opposition from local governments, supported by the industries in their areas.

If anti-pollution standards were rigorously applied today, many factories would simply shut down, which would mean less tax revenue for the provinces and fewer jobs for the peasants who leave the countryside in search of fortune in the city.

The idea that Beijing took to Copenhagen was part of a complicated balancing act. The Chinese central government wanted a weapon to put pressure on local governments, with the threat of international sanctions and the carrot of new technologies for energy savings. The Copenhagen treaty was to be a tool in a game of cat and mouse between center and periphery by which the pollution situation would gradually improve.
But it was not possible that such a complex operation could take place under the eyes of the world, with the Americans and others every day picking on Beijing and its local governments for this or that misreported data.

On the other hand - and this was the element not taken into consideration by China - it is also understandable that the US, engaged in a controversial financial effort (aid to developing countries for emission reductions) to be paid for with taxpayers' money, would insist on such verification. Washington ran the risk of being pilloried at home about how US aid money to cut pollution was wasted or stolen in the Chinese or Indian or African countryside.

It is not known how early the US made clear the importance of verification - did it give China and the other BASIC countries enough time to prepare for the demand? Late notice about verification and its importance to the Copenhagen deal could also have been the result of political infighting in Washington, where a strong constituency was and is against an environmental agreement and against taxpayer money being “squandered” on aid to developing countries to curb pollution.

It might well have been that international and national agendas clashed in the US, and that some parochial lawmakers did not see the big picture. Yet likewise, China did not see the importance of domestic thrusts in US international politics.

Thus China's first slip brought another one. China had first sought a broad consensus, with the strong support of its BASIC associates. Then, when everything was crumbling, it left them behind (at least partially) to rush to patch up a draft with the United States. So it did a favor to the US - which had for a while felt snubbed at the conference - shortly after the successful Obama summit in Beijing last month. But other developing countries, which had been following the Chinese lead, suffered from a last-minute partial about-face - China preferred to form an agreement with the US than to stand in a close, united front with other developing nations.

The result is lame on many fronts, environmentally but also politically, and Beijing realizes it. Now probably, as in Chinese tradition, there will be a phase of profound rethinking about tactics and strategies for the environment and environmental policies. And in essence, on these thoughts depends the entire global environmental policy.

Francesco Sisci is the Asia Editor of La Stampa.