Foreign Policy Magazine


From Western plot to party line, how China embraced climate science to become a green-energy powerhouse.

IN December 2009, climate-watchers the world over were trying to make sense of how the most promising attempt to date at preventing a global climate disaster went so horribly wrong. The Copenhagen Climate Change Conference had just come to a close, and the summit, which had brought together 192 countries, was meant to create the world’s first legally binding treaty on global warming. But in its final days, during negotiations between China and the United States, talks had sputtered, teetered, and ultimately collapsed. To observers eager for good news, the result came as a stunning and disheartening anticlimax.

To most of the West, it appeared that China had come intent on playing the spoiler. The country’s coal consumption had been growing steadily for decades as the government pushed industrialization. In the four years preceding Copenhagen, the country added 500 new 600-megawatt coal plants; it was responsible for more than 40 percent of global coal consumption in 2009. From the outside, the rationale for China’s alleged resistance was rather simple. It just wasn’t in China’s interest to put the brakes on its rapid growth for environmental considerations. What could the country possibly gain by capping emissions?

Back in Beijing, however, there was no doubt about the threat of climate change. Behind closed doors, officials were telling a different story about the failed negotiations in Copenhagen.

“It was unprecedented for a conference negotiating process to be so complicated, for the arguments to be so intense, for the disputes to be so wide and for progress to be so slow,” observed an internal report commissioned by the Environment Ministry for the minister, vice minister, and various other subordinates in the immediate aftermath, and obtained by the Guardian in February 2010. The report’s authors concluded that the plan pushed by the United States, which proposed cuts on all countries instead of just developed ones, had been “a conspiracy by developed nations to divide the camp of developing nations.” The report also lauded China’s decision to oppose a legally binding climate treaty, trumpeting, “The overall interests of developing countries have been defended.” Far from being the destructors of a progressive plan for climate change policy, the view from within China was that its delegates had possibly faced down a vast Western plot.

It was a strong reaction but one mostly rooted in diplomatic objections—a rejection of a deal that could be seen as asking China and India to pay for the sins of countries that had grown rich and modern by their bad behavior. But just over a month later, the idea of the Western plot took a strange, sharp turn. While speaking at a diplomatic event

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