When I first heard about the result of the climate talks in Copenhagen, I was puzzled. The flimsy ‘accord’ seemed such a massive anticlimax that I could hardly believe it was being trotted out to the watching world as any kind of success. I simply didn’t understand how the most powerful people on the planet could spend two weeks locked in discussion and emerge with something so inconsequential. What had they been doing all that time?
Naomi Klein blamed Obama for the breakdown of the talks, claiming that ‘instead of leading, Obama arrived with embarrassingly low targets and the heavy emitters of the world took their cue from him’. Mark Lynas, who was part of the Maldives delegation and therefore present at the closed-door session in which the details (such as they were) of the accord were hammered out, reports a very different story. He says that he ‘saw Obama fighting desperately to salvage a deal, and the Chinese delegate saying “no”, over and over again’.
His analysis is both more plausible and more disturbing than Klein’s. Lynas had the benefit of being present and of witnessing a Chinese delegate who ‘insisted that industrialised country targets, previously agreed as an 80% cut by 2050, be taken out of the deal’ and then ‘proceeded to take out all the numbers that mattered’. Yes, you read that right. He prevented industrialised countries from including their own targets, then removed every other measure that mattered.
The picture Lynas paints is one in which the Chinese arrived with a calculated game plan and left having executed that plan to the letter. They avoided having to make any inconvenient commitments themselves while simultaneously ensuring that the US, rather than China, would shoulder the burden of responsibility for the dilution.
None of which is to absolve Europe and the US. If, in the words of Ed Miliband, China ‘hijacked’ the talks, then they did so only because those of us in the industrialised world have meekly given them a disproportionate degree of control over our economies. In May 2009, for example, the US owed China $772bn. Fareed Zakaria, in The Post-American World, writes that ‘Wal-Mart imports about $18bn worth of goods from China each year’. Meanwhile, China holds $1.5trn of foreign-exchange reserves, three times the holdings of the entire European Union.
Perhaps it is because China still lags far behind the US in terms of military might that we’ve been so complacent about this accumulation. The US unilaterally, let alone in combination with the rest of the EU, could overwhelm China in a straight fight. So China has chosen not to engage in a straight fight. Instead, it has become a consumerist superpower, quietly becoming more and more influential in Western economies. Now, apparently, the Chinese are strong enough to demolish the climate summit in Copenhagen in defiance of the wills of virtually all the other participants.
This presents a real dilemma. The result of the conference, and Obama’s subsequent attempts to give it a positive spin, demonstrates that both he and European leaders adopted a conciliatory approach. They preferred to maintain a show of unity, despite the feebleness of the agreement, than risk alienating the Chinese. The problem is that we are running out of time to secure a deal. Lord Stern may have billed Copenhagen somewhat hyperbolically as ‘our last chance to save the planet’, but it would be equally rash to underestimate its importance. It’s hard to see how we will navigate from the dismal outcome of Copenhagen to a solid deal in Mexico in December 2010.
At present, consumer societies such as the UK simply cannot afford to buck China openly without experiencing severe economic hardship. We’ve outsourced so much to China that, without them, we would face considerable material impoverishment. Anyone who imagines that we can transition to a low-carbon economy without implementing any other substantive changes to our lifestyle is sadly mistaken. Renewable energy simply will not generate enough power to sustain a consumer economy. In many ways, climate change, coupled with peak oil, presents a fantastic opportunity to reassess our values and reimagine the kind of society we want to live in.
I would argue that the best way to proceed is to begin weaning ourselves off dependence upon the Chinese as soon as possible. By strengthening our own food sovereignty and reducing our reliance on consumer goods, we rebuild our own strength while simultaneously reducing their ability to wield effective sanctions against us. China’s Achilles heel is their need to sell those consumer goods to someone. If every modern economy started to lose interest in what they produce, their economic growth would soon begin to look pretty hollow. Moreover, if the factories stopped whirring, the levels of carbon dioxide being pumped into the air would start to diminish.
I perceive this as a positive process. Consumerism has often been critiqued on its own terms for fostering excessive competition, status anxiety and social isolation. In The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett demonstrate that, above a certain level, increases in income don’t result in increased longevity. In fact, the degree of equality within a society is a far better predictor of health and contentment. So a post-consumerist society has the potential to offer some tremendous improvements, despite a decrease in economic activity. More free time, more socialising, shorter working hours, more creativity, more trust. In terms of establishing a deal that will deliver meaningful cuts in carbon dioxide emissions, Copenhagen was an abject failure. If it’s woken enough people from a consumerist slumber, however, it may just have served its purpose.
Simon Brett is a freelance writer based in Brighton.