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15th May 2021

Leaked tapes show EU leaders' frustration at climate summit

Leaked tapes from the failed climate summit in Copenhagen published in German weekly Der Spiegel have documented a deeper rift between France, Germany and the US and China and India than previously thought.

The tapes were recorded "accidentally" on 18 December 2009, during a meeting of 25 leaders, including Germany's Angela Merkel, France's Nicolas Sarkozy, US President Barack Obama and the representatives of China and India, Der Spiegel reports.

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  • Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel's argument fell on deaf ears in Copenhagen (Photo: The Council of the EU)

Angela Merkel expressed her frustration at India's representative who refused to commit to precise overall CO2 emission reduction figures. "Then you don't want anything legally binding!" she said, only to be countered by the Indian side: "Why do you make presumptions? That is not fair!"

When she presented Europe's demand to have a commitment for a global reduction of 50 percent in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, China's negotiator intervened abruptly and said: "Thank you for all your proposals. We've already said we cannot accept the long-term goal of 50 percent."

At that point, French President Nicolas Sarkozy jumped in. "With all due respect and friendship for China," he said, the West had already committed itself to an 80 percent reduction by the mid-century mark. "And China, who will soon be the biggest economy in the world, now tells the world 'these engagements are for you, not for us.' This is unacceptable. One has to react to this hypocrisy," he scoffed.

US President Barack Obama tried to moderate the discussion, but also expressed his frustration that the Chinese premier preferred to stay in his hotel room and to send his chief negotiator instead. "I know there is a Chinese premier here, one who takes important decisions," the US President said. Mr Obama then told the Chinese negotiator, He Yafei, "[the premier] is giving you instructions at this stage."

Mr Yafei replied: "I do not speak for myself here. I speak for China. I heard President Sarkozy talk about hypocrisy. I would avoid such terms." He argued that industrial countries had to assume their responsibility after causing 80 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions within one century. "Don't run away from that," he said.

The two Western-proposed targets, of an internal 50 percent cut by 2050, and an international cut of 80 percent, have long been a bone of contention between rich and poor countries.

The latter argue that according to their analysis, this would require a per capita cut in emissions of 60 percent, or 20 percent in absolute terms.

Because these countries are starting at a much lower per capita level of emissions, this would mean that the amount of carbon emissions allowed would ironically be higher for developed countries than for the third world. The rich world would be permitted two to five times higher per capita emissions than developing countries.

The global south argues that for them to be able to continue to develop, the west must look to achieve negative carbon emissions by 2050, a proposal the EU and US reject.

The tapes also document a statement from Mr Obama suggesting he was already considering sealing a deal in a smaller format outside the formal UN process. He said he was hoping to reach an agreement "later, outside this multilateral framework," arguing that everybody had "more important things to do."

The end of the week-long Copenhagen summit was particularly frustrating for the Europeans, as their demands were left out of the final declaration agreed between the US, China, Brazil and South Africa. Yet not even that text could be endorsed by all delegations, who only "took note" of it.

'Lack of trust'

Meanwhile, Ms Merkel, seeking to revive international talks ahead of the follow-up to the Copenhagen summit, set to take place in Cancun, Mexico, at the end of this year, said at an informal climate discussion in Germany on Sunday that environment ministers must "find a basis of trust" in order to avoid a second fiasco.

"One thing that did not work well in Copenhagen is that a small circle met and the regional groups felt left out of the debate," she told delegates from some 45 countries gathered outside Bonn.

The former Danish chief-negotiator and host of the Copenhagen summit, Connie Hedegaard, has meanwhile taken up the post of EU commissioner for climate change. In an interview with UKdaily The Guardian, she defended Denmark's handling of the event.

"It's always easy to say after that we shouldn't have done a lot of things," she said. "But if we had not done so, we would not have had this whole debate and this whole mobilisation we have today."

Ms Hedegaard accepted that a global deal was unlikely at the climate conference in Cancun at the end of this year, but she said there should be a focus on substance and action rather than legal form.

"It would be fine if we can have everything done at Cancun, but it is not likely to happen so then we must include as a next step South Africa."

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