Owning the Story… and the Future” placed in context the clamor for a streamlined climate negotiation process deemphasizing the United Nations, exposing the underlying disdain for democracy and bias against developing nations, the roots of dissatisfaction with the United Nations in U.S. climate negotiation strategy, and the apparent lack of global support for significant change to the structure of U.N. negotiations.

The missing element in the popular understanding of events is context. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was an outcome of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and since 1995 the UNFCCC has held annual COP (Conference of Parties) meetings, usually with several smaller (intersessional) meetings leading up to the annual events. In that 15 years of shared history the parties have grown to understand each other quite well. They do not agree on many things, but they are rarely surprised by each others’ positions on key issues. They have a solid understanding of the context within which the negotiations occur.

Most of us, though, are not climate negotiation insiders, steeped in the history of U.N. climate talks. Even marginal insiders like reporters and climate campaigners don’t typically follow the negotiations closely from year to year and need considerable help framing the issues in a way that makes sense. In Copenhagen, the difficulties were exacerbated by several additional factors: there was intense pressure because of the expectation that a deal had to be reached; the press corps was significantly expanded with a pool of inexperienced climate reporters because of the heightened interest; a huge number of nonprofits participated for the first time and were relatively uninformed in terms of political context; heads of state without day-to-day climate negotiation experience were directly involved in the negotiations for the final two days of the conference; and, most importantly, the Copenhagen Accord itself, the political agreement reached by most countries at the end of the Copenhagen conference, appeared to drop from the sky in the closing hours of the conference, disconnected from the preceding 10 days of conference discussions. All of those factors combined with the normal shaky performance of the press to produce an epidemic of contextless commentary about Copenhagen.

Missing contextual understanding was nowhere in greater evidence than in Mark Lynas’ fly-on-the-wall account of the last-minute negotiations leading up to the Copenhagen Accord. You’ve probably seen the article by now. It has been zooming around the internet like only incendiary emails do.

Lynas is a British environmentalist and author who specializes in climate change. His most recent book is Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet. He was appointed an advisor on climate change by Mohamed Nasheed, the President of the Maldives, and was in the room with a small number of national delegations as the Copenhagen Accord was being negotiated. It may seem extraordinary for a person like Lynas to be placed on a government delegation, but it actually is not that unusual. Major industrial nations like the United States typically bring delegations that number in the hundreds, but smaller countries don’t have the resources to support that level of engagement, so they sometimes turn to civil society for help. Most people who join government delegations in this manner, though, are technical experts who have the sense not to pick a bar fight with their pants down around their ankles. No doubt President Nasheed expected expert contributions from an environmentalist like Lynas, and perhaps in private his contributions have matched those expectations. Publicly, however, the missing political context in Lynas’ article has been tremendously destructive, making it much more difficult for progressives to work with the Maldives, so I will be shocked if he returns.

The account offered by Mark Lynas places the blame for the failure of the Copenhagen conference squarely on the shoulders of China. In a harsh resuscitation of cold war style thinking, Lynas accuses China of intentionally blocking the negotiations for two weeks and then gutting the Copenhagen Accord so that Western leaders, particularly Obama, would look bad. Those of us working for progressive nonprofits that criticized the rich, industrial nations like the United States were characterized by Lynas as dupes of China, and G77 allies of China like Sudan were called “puppets”.

Many of the accusations made by Lynas consist of a combination of invective and mind-reading. He obviously cannot know the intent of the Chinese delegation, and it is unclear how he is able to discern the difference between solidarity between G77 members and being a “puppet” of China. I wonder if he regards Great Britain as a puppet of the United States? We can safely ignore all the name calling, but it is important to understand Lynas’ main substantive point. Here it is:

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. [sic]

These two paragraphs are the reason that Lynas’ account has found so many willing believers. How can it be that anyone could possibly object to the industrialized countries assigning themselves targets? The reaction of most readers is likely very similar to the reaction of Angela Merkel: stunned disbelief. If the rich industrial countries are offering to take on 80% cuts by 2050 out of a global total of 50%, how could the developing world not consider that a great deal, especially since they aren’t being asked for any commitments at all?

Martin Khor, Director of the South Centre, a policy think tank for developing countries, answered the question quite ably in a response to Mark Lynas published by the Guardian.

In fact, these targets, especially taken together, have been highly contentious during the two years of discussions, and for good reasons. They would result in a highly inequitable outcome where developed countries get off from their responsibilities and push the burden of adjustment onto the developing countries.

Together, they imply that developing countries would have to cut their emissions overall by about 20% in absolute terms and at least 60% in per capita terms. By 2050, developed countries with high per capita emissions – such as the US – would be allowed to have two to five times higher per capita emission levels than developing countries. The latter would have to severely curb not only their emissions but also their economic growth, especially since there is, up to now, no credible plans let alone commitments for financial and technology transfers to help them shift to a low-emissions development path.

The developed countries have already completed their industrialisation on the basis of cheap carbon-based energy and can afford to take on an 80% goal for 2050, especially since they now have the technological and organisational capacity and infrastructure. For a minimally equitable deal, they should commit to cuts of at least 200-400%, or move into negative emission territory, with net re-absorption of greenhouse gases, to enable developing countries the atmospheric space to develop.

The acceptance of the two targets would also have locked in a most unfair sharing of the remaining global carbon budget as it would have allowed the developed countries to get off free from their historical responsibility and their carbon debt. They would have been allocated the rights to a large amount of “carbon space”, historically and in the future, without being given the obligation and responsibility to undertake adequate emission cuts nor to make adequate financial and technology transfers to developing countries.

It is impossible to know whether the targets inserted into the Copenhagen Accord were placed there in order to set someone up for blame when they were removed. That would require a degree of visibility into the process that we just do not have. But, we know for sure that the targets were ancient. They were suggested by the European Union several months prior to COP 13 in Bali, December 2007. And the developing country objection to the structure of those targets is just as old. Martin Khor was head of the Third World Network at the time. Here’s what he wrote in September 2007.

The implications for developing countries of proposals on global targets should be more explicitly discussed. For example, the European Union has made a proposal for a global emission cut of 50% by 2050 (compared to 1990 levels) and a cut of 60-80% for developed countries.

It is good that the EU has started the ball rolling by putting forward these proposals and figures. Of course it is only a start and the EU and other developed country parties must be expected to improve on their proposed commitments.

However, there are also implications for developing countries in such figures, which have thus to be considered seriously. If we assume, for simplicity, that developed and developing countries account 50:50 for total emissions, then a global 50% cut with 70% developed-country cut implies a 30% emission cut for developing countries.

If developing countries’ population doubles in that period (from 1990 to 2050), then the implication is a 65% cut collectively in their emissions per capita.

This is a very deep cut, and whether developing countries should or can take on such cuts should be openly debated. It is insufficient to leave these as implicit targets, as a residue of global and developed countries’ targets.

Two and one-half years later the rich, industrial nations are still trying to establish implicit targets for developing countries. No one thoroughly familiar with the history of climate negotiations could seriously have believed these targets would be acceptable to developing countries. At best, the attempt to insert them was an effort to pressure developing countries into accepting an agreement against their interest. At worst it was a cynical attempt to deflect blame for the failure of Copenhagen away from the Global North.

Readers can only experience the stunned disbelief described by Mark Lynas if they are ignorant of the context, but contextless analysis is precisely what has dominated the descriptions of Copenhagen. Heads of state like Angela Merkel, well-intentioned environmentalists like Mark Lynas, and millions of people worldwide are focused on the climate negotiations like never before. None of them are aware of the full political context unless they make extraordinary efforts to educate themselves or have the context described for them.

Those of us who have had the good fortune to be exposed to Martin Khor’s analysis should spread it around. It isn’t as sexy or incendiary as Mark Lynas’ account. But it is more accurate.