How do I know China didn’t wreck the Copenhagen deal? I was in the room: HK policymaker

Linda Choy (3rd from right) hit back at criticism of China

Linda Choy (3rd from right) hit back at criticism of China

Any failures of the COP15 meeting in Copenhagen last month cannot be attributed to one country, according to a leading Hong Kong policymaker who attended the talks as part of the Chinese delegation.

Linda Choy, Political Assistant to the Secretary for Environment, HKSAR Government, said attacks on China were misplaced. Speaking specifically about an article in The Guardian by Mark Lynas, which blamed China for COP15 ending in “disaster”, Choy said taking one meeting out of context was questionable.

“I was in the room,” she said. “Yes, if you go to one session and you go away with one particular impression of who actually hurt the negotiation or who actually helped the negotiation process, if you were at that particular meeting, the meeting [Lynas] refers to, from what he saw, I can understand why he would go away with an impression like that.”

The offending article

The offending article

But Choy said the issues run far deeper than any one meeting could convey. “We spent a few days in the Bella Center. And if you sit through some of the formal meetings, the informal meetings, and the plenary sessions, you know that the negotiation is not just one issue. It is a very complex negotiation, with a cobweb of issues involved.”

Choy said countries were arguing over three key issues: reduction targets, financial assistance, and the reporting mechanisms. “At the end, they were even arguing over the form of text to be adopted,” she said. “So I don’t think it is fair for any country to point the finger at any [one], to say that, because you said that thing at the meeting you caused the meeting to collapse.”

As Choy points out, China was one of the lead nations in the drafting of the one concrete result of the COP15 meeting, the Copenhagen Accord. “If we judge by the fact that the final Copenhagen Accord… was actually drafted by China, South Africa, Brazil, India together with the USA at the very last minute on the 19th December… this is proof that these countries helped in rescuing the meeting from being a complete failure,” she said.

Choy’s remarks came at a post-COP15 event organised by Hong Kong think-tank Civic Exchange, where 12 leading Hong Kongers who attended the Copenhagen meetings were invited to share their views of the political brouhaha of the century.

12 delegates shared their COP15 experiences with a packed theatre (photo: Civic Exchange)

12 delegates shared their COP15
experiences with a packed theatre
(photo: Civic Exchange)

The Copenhagen-12 reported mixed feelings: some reported the growing distrust between developed and developing countries; others saw business left to the periphery while one found great pleasure in the fact that public transport, at last, was finally on the climate change agenda.

But among the speakers at the Civic Exchange event, common themes could be found in a frustration at the UN process itself; an acceptance that international agreements are difficult but that COP15 did develop some common ground; and that national governments have considerably more power to act than the bloated UNFCCC.

Offering a business perspective, Robert Gibson, Director, Sustainable Development, John Swire & Sons said the bustling meetings and discussions going on around the main event probably had very little influence on the main negotiations themselves. “It was the sort of stuff required to support a deal, had one been made,” he said. “As it was, we were sort of the wedding guests when the bride and groom broke up at the altar.”

According to Gibson, Yves de Boer, UNFCCC Executive Secretary, told a World Business Council meeting that business really did not have a role in the process by the time nations gathered around the COP15 table. “He said ‘you are not connected to what is happening at the Bella Center.’”

“But,” said Gibson, “where we are much more connected is in two ways. First of all is with our national governments. And secondly, when it gets into sectorial deals, there is much more that can be done.”

Echoing the importance of national work, rather than focussing too hard on international agreements was Jeanne Ng, Director, Group Environmental Affairs, CLP Holdings. Ng said national policy was crucial to making things happen.

“Why are there wind farms in China, India and Australia? It is because there are policy measures, there are strategies, there are plans put in place by their governments. The key message is… if the international agreements don’t come through, it doesn’t matter to a certain degree. It doesn’t mean that action cannot take place.”

Ng said national policies were the backbone of investment. One encouraging sign from COP15, she said, was the “avid purpose” on the national allocation mitigation action plans. “At least those plans will give a lot of us businesses a little more certainty on the way forward,” she said. “Because if there are no plans, no policies, no regulations coming in to support it, it makes [investment] decisions very difficult.”

Optimism – or less pessimism

But while some have called the conference a failure, most of the delegates reporting back to Hong Kong were optimistic – or at least, “not pessimistic,” as Linda Choy said.

“After all, at the end of the day, we had to choose whether we had no agreement or some form of agreements,” she said. “Eventually, we did not end up with a legally binding agreement, which is not the ideal scenario, but at least at the end was some form of agreement, which will enable us to move forward with future negotiations.”

Cathay: unexpected support from environmental groups (photo: Cathay Pacific)

Cathay: unexpected support from
environmental groups
(photo: Cathay Pacific)

Also with a positive view from a ringside seat in the Bella Center was Mark Watson, Head of Environmental Affairs, Cathay Pacific Airways, representing the airline sector. Watson said Copenhagen was certainly not a victory for the airlines, but some strong progress was made. He also thanked the Hong Kong government for brokering discussions with the Chinese delegation, with which he had “some very very positive discussions.”

Watson said airlines found support from unexpected quarters. “We found some unexpected support from environmental NGOs which hitherto had been quite critical, quite rightly perhaps, of our positions in past years. But we found really strong commonalities… we found we were on the same page with some of our most ardent critics, which is a real change of tack,” he said.

Watson called for airlines to be brought firmly into the fold of climate change negotiations as quickly as possible., “The Copenhagen Accord fell very short of our expectations,” he said. “The longer we stay outside, the more difficult it will become for our industry. We are being hit with more and more charges, and taxed regionally, that doesn’t work for our industry. We need something that removed competitive distortion, that provides a level playing field for our airlines and which works globally.”

While airlines made positive progress, for Glenn Frommer, Head of Sustainability Development, MTR Corporation, just getting land transport on the agenda was a coup. “Without tackling transport climate change, …we cannot limit to the two degrees increase… but public transport has never, never, been included in any climate change discussions,” he said.

“The presentations that we arranged for COP15 represented a milestone of 7 years of work. While we didn’t get land transport into the final accord, we have gotten land transport on the agenda in a serious fashion,” he said.

Frommer said MTR Corporation had already begun promulgating its indicator sets into its supply chains, and would further developer work with UNFCCC on this. “In the next five to 10 years we will be considering total emissions monitoring towards a CO2 driven supply chain,” he said.


Frommer also made some personal remarks regarding Copenhagen, which he considers his second home. While saying he was proud a country of seven million people could put on such a show, he also noted that Denmark had “never arrested so many people in one go. Ever, in its entire history.”

His comments underscore thoughts from other delegates, that the process itself has gotten out of control. While many delegates appreciated the “global mobilisation” which saw COP15 become such an important international event, many agreed that the downside of such growth was how unwieldy the negotiation process has become.

From a legal standpoint, lawyer Chris Tung, Partner, K&L Gates, said it was clear the original legal system behind COP15 had become too heavily weighed down. With its ancestry from a multi-stakeholder engagement process in Montreal in 2005, Tung said the original COP objective was only really to agree on further emission targets for the original Annex I countries. “The issue now is really too complicated,” he said.

British Consul-General Andrew Seaton: "procedural complications are formidable"

British Consul-General
Andrew Seaton:
“procedural complications
are formidable”

Others agreed the mechanics of COP15 itself were far from perfect. British Consul-General to Hong Kong and Macau Andrew Seaton said one lesson drawn from the event was that “the procedural complications of trying to reach agreement between 192 countries were formidable.” According to Seaton, the UN Secretary General has said the handling of the whole process will now be examined.

And from Linda Choy’s perspective, the whole process lacked engagement. “[One] takeaway we have from the conference is that the process itself is as important as the outcome, if not more.”

“Time and again we saw the issue of trust coming up between developed and developing countries,” she said. “The actual process could have been more engaging.”

“If you look very carefully at the developments in the very last hours of the event… my observation is that at the very last minutes of the negotiations, around midnight on the 18th, there was actually a short turning point when China and other countries came up with the draft text, and then there was prolonged discussion on whether that text should be adopted.”

“So looking back,” she continued, “I think if countries had conducted in a different manner, if there had been [instead] more consultation with the countries concerned, we would probably have ended up with everything.”

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