The Copenhagen debacle has some enduring lessons about the shape today of global power. One is that the Chinese government, from every point of view, is an extremely unsatisfactory great power. If you are looking for global leadership in Beijing, you have come to the wrong address.
China is the world's largest, and fastest growing, greenhouse gas emitter. Logically, the world cannot effectively limit greenhouse gas emissions if China won't play. Yet China's position, all the way from the start of Kyoto to the Copenhagen debacle, has been that it doesn't have to agree to any binding commitments. Moreover, at Copenhagen it insisted it would not under any circumstances allow any outside body to inspect, check or verify the commitments it made to reduce its greenhouse intensity; that is, the volume of gases emitted per unit of economic activity. So the world will be left with faith in Chinese government statistics as the only measure of greenhouse emission mitigation.
Now, not to put too fine a point on it, China's record with state statistics is not very reassuring, especially in sensitive areas.
Every year the Pentagon publishes a study of the likely Chinese defence budget. It starts from the assumption that the official budget is meaningless and offers a range of possibilities for true Chinese military expenditure. Similarly, a few years ago global economic institutions had to recalculate the size of the Chinese economy, in part because of the ropiness of Beijing's statistics.
Some analysts initially thought the Chinese wanted the Americans and others to agree to deeper emissions cuts on the part of the developed world and its blocking of all sensible processes at Copenhagen was a tactic towards this end. In fact, the only reasonable conclusion is that the Chinese leadership couldn't care less about global warming, or at least it regards it as vastly secondary to the need not to have any foreigners poking about in its books.
Yet China is taking significant greenhouse mitigation measures, because it is sensibly concerned about its own environment.
The befuddled Australians who spruik a role of global leadership for China fail to recognise how utterly domestic the focus of its leadership is.
Western statesmen dealing with China find the Chinese engagement with global issues very shallow and Chinese positions very inflexible, traits we've just witnessed in Copenhagen.
The other great rising power, India, also took the view that it wasn't signing up to anything binding and that its priority was development for its poor, rather than greenhouse mitigation. But the Indians, too, are taking environmental actions for their own reasons. Here's a really heretical thought. Perhaps George W. Bush and John Howard were on to something when they argued that the best, in fact the only, way to encourage China, India and similar states to perform on greenhouse was to develop and export green technology at an affordable price.
Here are a few other lessons from Copenhagen. These UN summits are absurd. The process became an obstacle to the substance. It is true that few conferences have been as badly organised as Copenhagen, for which the Danes get all the credit, but the presence of 45,000 people doesn't help the 100 or so people there who can really do meaningful business. The unelected, unrepresentative, undemocratic, unaccountable non-governmental organisations are there in their tens of thousands. They have essentially blackmailed their way in as the price of limiting the demonstrations to some manageable level of violence and hatred.
But in substance they add nothing and in tone they contribute hysteria and emotionalism, the last things this conference needed.
The fractures in the mythical Third World were obvious. Clearly, China, India and now Brazil occupy a different category from that of most developing countries. They are much bigger, much more powerful and their economies are much more consequential. China and India are in the separate category of rapidly developing countries. But, more generally, Africa emerges poorly from Copenhagen. It was destructive and obstructive. No one else in the developing world really wants to associate with it.
It is unlikely any conference will be structured in this way again.
Africa's isolation was even greater than it seems. It was gamed by China, which joined in its obstructionism but delivered it nothing in return. None of the developing Asian nations that have solid economic prospects want to be a part of the drastically old-fashioned, empty rhetoric of victimhood and handouts in which so many African leaders indulged.
This actually goes to a deep problem with the Copenhagen design. Rich nations are supposed to pay tens of billions of dollars in extra aid to help poor nations adapt to climate change or fund green development or whatever. In fact, international aid has been an enormously corrupt and corrupting business. Anyone who doubts this should read The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done so Much Ill and So Little Good, by former World Bank economist William Easterly. He points out the West has paid $US2.3 trillion in aid during the past five decades, with very little to show for it.
The big development successes in poor countries such as China and India have come from private sector development, not from state aid.
Just imagine all the lovely corruption and waste that the billions of dollars in new greenhouse aid will furnish, as countries sell the same forest seven times, then burn it all the same, or claim hydro-electric schemes that they were going to construct anyway as eligible for greenhouse funds.
It's entertaining, it's not going to stop global warming.