The German newspaper Der Spiegel recently released further “insider reports” that China and India “sabotaged” the Copenhagen climate negotiations last December.  This time not only were the reporters “in the room,” as Mark Lynas’s editorial (“How do I know China wrecked the Copenhagen deal? I was in the room”) claimed, but they had audio recordings that reveal fascinating snippets of the last few hours of the negotiations.  As there have been questions as to the validity of Lynas’s contentions, this follow-up article provides a little more insight as to many walked away with the impression that China, and not surprisingly India, were the saboteurs responsible for watering down the Copenhagen Accord. (The Financial Times‘ blog has a summary of the different accounts here).

Despite these new disclosures, I want to emphasize that the bottom line is this: It doesn’t matter. Who sabotaged what and for what reasons shouldn’t matter as much as it has already; and in particular, it shouldn’t matter moving forward to Cancun.  The fact that both China and India, along with other major emerging economies in the BASIC alliance, have reaffirmed their commitments to the UNFCCC negotiation process and the realization of the Copenhagen Accord through the two-track process should be the bigger headline here.

With this in mind, I’d like to highlight several interesting insights revealed in the Der Spiegel accounts:

1) India perhaps should have received ‘Best Supporting Actor’ for their role in Copenhagen. While Lynas’s account largely glosses over the role of India in the waning hours of the negotiations, vilifying China as the main saboteur in the negotiations “back at times by India,” the new Der Spiegel report suggests India as more of a co-conspirator.  In fact, The Hindu reported Minister of State for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh as saying India saved China from isolation at Copenhagen:

China would have been left completely isolated at last December’s climate summit in Copenhagen, if it had not been for India’s backing, Minister of State for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh has said.

Recognition from China’s “top leadership” that Indian support was “absolutely essential” for China at the talks, following an “ambush” by the West, had now even led to an improvement in bilateral relations after a year of hostilities, Mr. Ramesh told journalists on Sunday.

“We were critical to China at Copenhagen. The Chinese know, in their heart of hearts, that we saved them from isolation,” he said. “It is not an exaggeration to say that the top Chinese leadership acknowledges the Copenhagen spirit, and the cooperation between India and China, as a very positive outcome.”

Indeed, the audio playback reveals tense dialogue between an unidentified negotiator from India, who gets heated with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in response to the Europeans’ desire to put concrete reduction figures on the table.  “Don’t prejudge options,” the Indian negotiator says.

2) China’s move to block specific reduction numbers is perhaps not as seditious as Lynas suggests. While Lynas claims that China perhaps wanted to leave out specific reduction numbers to make the resulting Copenhagen Accord “less ambitious” and thus let developed countries take the fall for a watered-down agreement, the new Der Spiegel report implies a more practical rationale for this move by China.  From the recordings, it is clear that Merkel is trying to negotiate language on targets with China with reference to the latest IPCC report, even asking at one point, “Is this acceptable for China?” to which He Yafei reiterates, “We have said clearly that we cannot accept 50 percent reductions.” Pointing to historic responsibility and the right of developing countries to continue developing as industrialized nations have for the past 200 years, He Yafei and the Chinese position were clear from the outset that China will defend its right to develop and oppose measures that might unduly burden the country’s growth and development.  Plus, the Indian negotiator stresses that perhaps Cancun would be a more appropriate time to discuss such numbers, leaving more time to determine domestically what targets might be possible.

3) Where was Premier Wen Jiabao? Neither Lynas’s account nor the Der Spiegel account lends any additional clarification as to where Premier Wen Jiabao was during all of this. The final meeting concludes when He Yafei asking for a suspension of the discussion for consultation, presumably with Premier Wen Jiabao, whose absence during those waning hours are still unexplained, other than the fact that he was “uninformed” of the final meeting  (Reuters account here). As Brookings’ China expert Kenneth Lieberthal has remarked, this “kind of clumsy tactic that Beijing is usually far too smart to employ” leaves a “puzzling” impression of Chinese diplomacy during the negotiations.  Lynas suggests Premier Wen’s absence from the final meetings was intentional, meant as a diplomatic “snub” to the other Parties in the room.  It makes for great headlines, but I’m not sure if this account is more interpretative than substantive.
One of my colleagues on ‘Team China’ recently spoke to the senior climate official at the Permanent UN Mission to China, who we met with the day before we left Copenhagen.  She asked for his impressions of the outcome of Copenhagen, to which he immediately bristled and said that he felt that the U.S. should be to blame for trying to “kill Kyoto” and “hijack the negotiations.”  He also suggested that the only reason China and India agreed to the Copenhagen Accord is because President Obama prematurely announced China and India’s support of the agreement at the press conference, meaning the countries couldn’t back out after such a proclamation.  This begs the question as to whether China and India are truly behind the Copenhagen Accord, or if they might back out given half the chance, as neither is willing to abandon the Kyoto Protocol.