After COP15: Boycott China

2009 December 25
by Chris Vernon

Now that life has returned to normal on the streets of Copenhagen and we have had time to consider the Copenhagen Accord it’s time to work out what to do next. Here’s my take on it.

Mark Lynas wrote an interesting piece for the Guardian from an almost unique position he found himself in last week. He was one of only ~60 people in the closed doors heads of state meeting at the end of COP15. Media were not allowed, Lynas was there as part of the Maldives delegation. There won’t be many reports from this meeting.

It has emerged that China (with a degree of backing from India and Saudi Arabia) were chiefly responsible for the failure at COP15. The majority of the rich nations, including America wanted a much tougher deal but China vetoed it.

To those who would blame Obama and rich countries in general, know this: it was China’s representative who insisted that industrialised country targets, previously agreed as an 80% cut by 2050, be taken out of the deal. “Why can’t we even mention our own targets?” demanded a furious Angela Merkel. Australia’s prime minister, Kevin Rudd, was annoyed enough to bang his microphone. Brazil’s representative too pointed out the illogicality of China’s position. Why should rich countries not announce even this unilateral cut? The Chinese delegate said no, and I watched, aghast, as Merkel threw up her hands in despair and conceded the point. Now we know why – because China bet, correctly, that Obama would get the blame for the Copenhagen accord’s lack of ambition.

China, backed at times by India, then proceeded to take out all the numbers that mattered. A 2020 peaking year in global emissions, essential to restrain temperatures to 2C, was removed and replaced by woolly language suggesting that emissions should peak “as soon as possible”. The long-term target, of global 50% cuts by 2050, was also excised. No one else, perhaps with the exceptions of India and Saudi Arabia, wanted this to happen. 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.

So we have a situation where a large proportion of the world does want a tough and legally binding deal on climate, but the unanimous nature of the UN’s COP15 process does not allow that to be recognised. This need not be a cause for despair though as it’s not a unique situation.

There are many situations in the world where unanimous agreement cannot be reached. Rogue states exist.

Two relevant examples are the current situation with Iran’s apparent nuclear ambitions and historically South Africa’s apartheid regime. In each of these cases we have one state doing something that the majority of the world has agreed not to do. There’s the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which although Iran is a signatory is also in non-compliance with the safeguards. The US maintains sanctions with wider adoption under discussion.

The first UN resolutions addressing apartheid were passed in the early 1960s and by the early ‘80s many countries had placed various trade sanctions on South Africa.

The situation with China and climate change is similar. It’s one ‘rogue state’ going against the global consensus. A unanimous agreement is currently impossible (as it also seems to be regarding Iran’s nuclear ambitions and was with the apartheid regime in the ’60s). I believe the solution is for a ‘coalition of the willing’ to form (comprising of the EU, US, Australia, most of the developing world…), for it to construct a legal framework delivering emission cuts of ~20-30% by 2020 and ~50-80% by 2050. These kinds of numbers do seem politically feasible when China and friends are excluded.

Part of the coalition’s approach to meeting the targets might be carbon intensity import tariffs, to penalise China’s exports. The role of civil society, environmental groups etc. is to lobby for such legislation and to campaign for a boycott of Chinese goods. The two approaches cover the top-down and bottom-up angles, they penalise the Chinese high carbon economy and promote lower carbon, locally produced products. Win-win?

Is there evidence of boycotts actually achieving things in the past? Nestlé is widely boycotted but seems to be doing okay.

Maybe I should start a Facebook group? Seems to be the way things are done these days!

7 Responses leave one →
  1. December 25, 2009

    Your idea that unanimity is not required for progress, chimes with Marc Levy’s notion that the ‘End of Unanimity’ is welcome.

  2. December 30, 2009

    And perhaps, as Jeremy Leggett is suggesting in the Guardian today, the real villains are the coal interests:

  3. Mille Brandi permalink
    December 31, 2009

    Why not distribute this opinion on facebook and bring this to China-goods-consumers all over the world. That could have a gigantic effect.

  4. January 3, 2010

    There are several Boycott China campaigns of great longevity, including ones because of animal welfare and ones because of the repression of Tibet, amongst other causes.

    There is no evidence that the Nestle boycott (as of the last 25 years) has bothered them much. They know that the people boycotting are not their main customers. Same with coke. The same can’t be true of China though since nearly everyone has been buying things ‘made in China’ at some point. Or so it seems to me.

    What I find frustrating (and what could make it difficult) is that hardly anything on Amazon or kindred sites actually tells you where it is made. Really we need a legal requirement to state the location, or for competitors to set up that do announce the location. After all, a lot of the goods made in China that people are buying are off the internet.

  5. Chris permalink*
    January 3, 2010

    Yeah, I quite agree about labelling. Maybe lobbying for ‘country of origin’ to be displayed at point of sale is a required first step. And true, public boycotts probably haven’t ever achieved much. Import tariffs based on carbon intensity, or embodied carbon is likely to be a more effective approach. But the question is what do the thousands of well-meaning individuals do today?

  6. alan permalink
    January 6, 2010

    I totally agree with the suggestion of getting on with a pact exluding China which cares little for long term global warming. We have to convince them the only way they will understand:economically. I take avoiding chinese goods as seriously as I do my separating refuse for recycling. Carbon taxes on imported Chinese goods. The government is always talking about carbon footprints. If they really care why not do something about it.

  7. Erica permalink
    January 13, 2010

    I’m not convinced boycotting China is really possible on the right scale, or productive – I am sure they would be able to deal with it and there are probably better ways to encourage all parties to go low carbon. But post-COP “where do we go from here?” is an interesting question so I’ll make some suggestions.

    I liked this summary from the PCI:

    So my suggestion, following that theme, would be “Make It Personal”. Personal in the activist sense as the above writer suggests, but also personal in a wider sense:

    – personal change. Not just talking about changing others or changing the world, but changing ourselves first. I must change my lifestyle before I expect my family to change theirs; Britain must change before we can put pressure on China; the government must change before they impose it on the people.

    – personal communication. Who is best placed to explain to my grandmother the reality of climate change and resource depletion? I am, because I not only have credibility as an activist but also as someone she trusts and will listen to and make an attempt to understand. We need to stop forwarding petitions, emails and newspaper reports and start talking, whether to an audience of one or 100. Maybe we get something wrong a few times, maybe we can’t answer all the questions, maybe we screw up and feel silly – yes, it takes practice – but the more we do it the better we get.

    – personal examples. If we make low energy or low carbon choices, and we talk about them, it narrows the psychological distance. If someone can say “yes, I know someone who doesn’t fly, I know someone who is a member of a Transition Town, I know someone who has a solar hot water system” then they have a basis for thinking about the type of person who doesn’t fly, is a ember of a Transition Town, or installs solar hot water. And if that person isn’t a dreadlocked hippie but is in fact one of their friends or family, and relatively normal in other respects (well!), suddenly it becomes a more normal thing to do (cf vegetarianism). I think breaking down these psychological barriers is key to the next wave of environmental activism, which has to be mass expansion into a less radical but wider popular movement (which is not to say that the more radical side will not also exist and evolve).

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