More heroes, familiar villains

Mark Lynas, environmental journalist and author of Six Degrees, who was also apparently part of the delegation from the Maldives at Copenhagen, has just pitched in with his account – or rather, his interpretation – of what happened at Copenhagen. You can read it here. His own personal heroes appear to be the rich world, from the EU to Obama; his villains China, India and Sudan – a country he claims acted as a Chinese puppet – and the NGOs, who by blaming Obama and the rich world in the wake of the conference, Lynas claims, played into China’s hands, exactly as that country’s leaders predicted. The US, by contrast, “put serious cuts on the table for the first time (17% below 2005 levels by 2020), and was obviously prepared to up its offer.” Lynas concludes: “I am certain that had the Chinese not been in the room, we would have left Copenhagen with a deal that had environmentalists popping champagne corks popping in every corner of the world.”

Got that? It’s a fairly familiar narrative, overall: the weak victims (in this case the poorest countries); the wicked and tyrannical bad guys (China, India, Sudan – plus their hapless dupes, the NGOs); and the benevolent, struggling heroes (the rich world). Substitute for this set of characters Belgium, Germany and Great Britain respectively, and you would have essentially the same story relayed in British propaganda circa 1914.

Lynas’ account has unsurprisingly met with some criticism already. David Wearing, author of The Democrat’s Diary, commented on the piece:

“Mark – you say the US offered a 17% cut in emissions on 2005 levels, and that this was a serious offer. This is not a serious offer, and you should know as much.

“Cuts are measured by everyone else on 1990 levels, not 2005 levels. We need a 40% cut on 1990 levels at least to give us a fighting chance of limiting warming to 2 degrees. You know how the US offer of 17% translates to 1990 levels? Is it 40%? Is it even 17%? Is it f*ck. Its four. Four per cent. And this you call “serious”, while lecturing “leftists” about their starry eyed view of developing countries?

“The US offered an emissions cut of 4% on 1990 levels when over 40% was needed to reach the 2 degree target. Obama stated flat out that this was non-negotiable. Blaming China for scuppering a “deal” with a 2 degree target when we know full well that the deal would have been worthless given the pathetic cuts offered by Washington is not exactly giving the whole story is it?

“Wittingly or not, Mark, you’re relaying Western spin. You weren’t the only one at Copenhagen. We have a lot of reports now. And even your insider account can’t mask the pathetic stance of the United States. By all means blame China for what its responsible for. I’m under no illusions about them, or India and its uniquely vile political class. There’s plenty of blame to go around. But the idea that the nasty Chinese spoilt the brave idealistic Westerners’ great humanitarian bid to deal seriously with climate change is a lot of nonsense.”

Richard Seymour, author of The Liberal Defence of Murder and the Lenin’s Tomb blog, has also noted two important factors that are worth recollecting: Obama’s apparent “preemptive diplomatic strike to lower expectations” prior to the talks, and the fact that even the pathetically weak target the US managed to offer is compromised by the loopholes and get-out clauses offered by the “cap-and-trade” system set out by the Waxman-Markey Bill. As Seymour comments:

“This is an interesting account of the negotiations, but it is also a deeply credulous article that insults the intelligence of readers. Notwithstanding the specific allegations against China’s diplomacy, a few observations are pertinent:

“1) Obama announced long before Copenhagen began that there was not going to be an agreement. This was announced in November:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/nov/15/copenhagen-climate-deal-obama

“This was a preemptive diplomatic strike to lower expectations.

“2) The leaked ‘Danish text’ reflected the commitment of the leading powers to imposing unequal targets, with the majority of emissions cuts accounted for by developing nations. The text essentially allowed for developed countries to devise their own targets based on their own standards, rather than a globally relevant standard based on the science.

“3) The “serious cuts” that Lynas claims Obama put “on the table” were a) pathetically inadequate, b) based on carbon-offsetting mechanisms that are ineffectual and unjust. The bill passed by the House that effectively authorised Obama’s offer (it still has to be passed in Senate) was based on a ‘cap and trade’ scheme that enables polluting companies to buy the right to pollute. If a deal based on such a miserable concession by the world’s major polluter would have “had environmentalists popping champagne corks popping in every corner of the world”, then we have to ask how seriously environmentalists take the threat.

“Lastly, the whole piece is informed by shrill Sinophobic hysteria. China is not an “uncontested superpower”. It has nothing like America’s military might, and is economically dependent on the US. China may be obstructing a meaningful climate deal, but it isn’t the only party doing so, and it certainly isn’t the most powerful.”

New Scientist’s Fred Pearce – although he may have helped cast even more of a saintly glow over Ed Miliband in his piece today than anyone else so far (“Did British climate secretary Ed Miliband save the planet early on the final Saturday of the Copenhagen conference?”), no mean feat – offers some revelations on the loopholes surrounding the rich world’s offers at Copenhagen that are worth quoting at length. (The Independent’s Johann Hari also provides a valuable explanation here and here.) Writes Pearce:

“beyond the targets lies a legal morass over the definitions of what the target numbers mean. The text of the Copenhagen Accord contains even more loopholes than the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, say analysts.

“Environment group WWF – reaching roughly the same conclusions as Climate Analytics and Ecofys – calculates that rich-world promises to make cuts of 15 to 19% in their collective emissions between 1990 and 2020 could, once the loopholes are taken into account, result in an actual increase in emissions by 4 to 10%. Another unpublished assessment by Simon Terry of the Sustainability Council of New Zealand puts the increase at 2 to 8%.

“The main loopholes are:

• Hot air. The Kyoto Protocol gave Russia and other Eastern European countries rights to emit far more CO2 than they needed because of the collapse of their industries post-1990. They have accumulated large numbers of excess permits – 10.7 billion tons by the time the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012, according to a European Union study. Potentially these credits, often called “hot air”, can be sold to other countries. The Copenhagen Accord appears to allow the spare credits to be carried forward for sale after 2012. If the EU bought them all to offset emissions between 2013 and 2020, it could achieve even a 30 percent “cut” in emissions without making any domestic cuts at all.

• Carbon offsets. This is another way in which countries faced with difficult emissions reduction targets can offset them by investing in projects to cut someone else’s emissions. Done well, they allow carbon to be kept out of the atmosphere more cheaply. Done badly, they amount to carbon fraud, writing off emissions via green energy projects that were going to happen anyway. According to WWF, the European Union has already announced plans to make half a billion tons in emissions “cuts” through offsets in developing countries between 2012 and 2020. Other nations could triple that figure, it says.

• Airline and shipping fuel. A notable failure of the Copenhagen Accord is the absence of proposals to limit growing emissions from international shipping and aircraft, which do not fall under the umbrella of anyone’s national emissions. Currently that is another loophole of one to two billion tons a year.

• Forests. Copenhagen also failed to agree on a plan to allow countries to claim either cash or carbon emissions credits for changes in managing forests to retain carbon. Insiders say the talks faltered because the US and others refused to close a loophole that would allow countries to claim credits for improving things in one part of the country – by planting trees, for instance – while not being held to account for cutting down trees elsewhere within their borders. Unless fixed, another billion tons could slip through this loophole, says WWF.”

As I concluded in a comment on Lynas’s piece:

“The fact of having been present somewhere is obviously a powerful device to employ to lend credibility to your account, and Lynas is playing that particular card to the full here. Yet various aspects of his account amount to little more than his own guesswork. He has no idea what China’s overall “agenda” was, particularly as it conerned the PR battle with NGOs and Western leaders. He has no idea what Sudan’s overall motivations were. He is offering his own speculative interpretation of events, and giving it rhetorical force with the vocal declaration that “I was there”. But the mere fact of presence does not give you the ability to read minds. And that is what most of this account (read it carefully) consists of.

“Other parts of this account give cause for serious skepticism. Mark suggests, extraordinarily, that the US’s offer was “serious” – even though, as David Wearing has very rightly pointed out above, all they were offering was a 4% cut on the 1990 baseline, and in the context of all the issues of historical responsibility, equity and relative per capita emissions we should all be well aware of by now. It’s not difficult to see how and why that might reasonably be construed as a pretty insulting offer.

“Mark also suggests that the US “was obviously prepared to up its offer”. So what’s the evidence for this? It certainly seems to conflict with the details reported by this paper in the late stages of the summit, which point to the fact that the US was simply not budging on what it had already offered. If there’s real, substantive evidence to the contrary I’d love to hear it, but all we seem to have at the moment is Mark’s reading of what was “obvious”. And given his highly flattering reading of what was “serious” in the US’s proposal, I’m frankly inclined to take that with more than a pinch of salt.”

Clearly, the credibility of Lynas’ account turns on whether the claim that the US was “obviously” prepared to go further has any substance. Yet I’m not aware of any evidence to this effect, and what evidence I have seen suggests that the opposite is the case. It is very far from being an “obvious” point.

That’s not to infer that Lynas is necessarily wrong. But his account does have all the hallmarks of the one Western leaders want you to hear. Behind this facade, the reality looks considerably less flattering.

One Response to “More heroes, familiar villains”

  1. Copenhagen: the post-mortem | Climate Safety Says:

    [...] Is Lynas, too, simply reaching for “familiar villains”, as media commentator Tim Holmes has it? Or in the words of David Wearing, author of the Democrat’s Diary, unwittingly [...]

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