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The Copenhagen Protocol: How China and India Sabotaged the UN Climate Summit

By , Christian Schwägerl and

What really went on at the UN climate conference in Copenhagen? Secret recordings obtained by SPIEGEL reveal how China and India prevented an agreement on tackling climate change at the crucial meeting. The powerless Europeans were forced to look on as the agreement failed.

AFP/ Bundesregierung

At some point his patience was at an end, as depleted as the oxygen in the small conference room. He could no longer keep still, not even for a second.

The words suddenly burst out of French President Nicolas Sarkozy: "I say this with all due respect and in all friendship." Everyone in the room, which included two dozen heads of state, knew that he meant precisely the opposite of what he was saying. "With all due respect to China," the French president continued, speaking in French.

Photo Gallery

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Photo Gallery: The Failure of Copenhagen

The West, Sarkozy said, had pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent. "And in return, China, which will soon be the biggest economic power in the world, says to the world: Commitments apply to you, but not to us."

Sarkozy, gaining momentum, then said: "This is utterly unacceptable!" And then the French president stoked the diplomatic conflict even further when he said: "This is about the essentials, and one has to react to this hypocrisy!"

A hush came over the room. Even the mobile phones stopped ringing. It was Friday, Dec. 18, 2009, at about 4 p.m. That was the moment when the world leaders meeting in Copenhagen abandoned their efforts to save the world.

The Summit within the Summit

The world's most powerful politicians were gathered in the "Arne Jacobsen" conference room in Copenhagen's Bella Center, negotiating ways to protect the world's climate. US President Barack Obama was perched on the edge of a wooden chair with blue upholstery, talking to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. The blue turban of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was bobbing over the tops of a few hastily assembled potted plants. The meeting was soon dubbed the "mini-summit of the 25."

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was there, representing the African continent, and Mexican President Felipe Calderon was standing nearby. Only one important world leader was missing, an absence that came to symbolize the failure of the climate summit: Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.

Instead, Obama was sitting across from China's deputy foreign minister, He Yafei. It was a diplomatic affront that would be mentioned during the course of the meeting.

Even three months after the noteworthy events at the climate summit in Copenhagen, the Chinese leader still seemed to feel a need to publicly justify his absence in the room at the time. And those who were present are still not entirely clear as to what was actually agreed during the negotiations.

Since the Copenhagen showdown, international climate politics have faltered like a mortally wounded animal -- something that can also be observed at the meeting taking place this week at the Petersberg conference center outside Bonn, Germany.

Reconstructing the Decisive Meeting

The public was kept almost completely in the dark about the hectic crisis meeting that took place behind closed doors in Copenhagen and dragged on for 10 hours. The Chinese are said to have openly warned their Danish hosts against indiscretions.

Now, for the first time, SPIEGEL is in a position to reconstruct the decisive hour-and-a-half meeting on that fateful Friday. Audio recordings of historical significance, in the form of two sound files that total 1.2 gigabytes in size and that were created by accident, serve as the basis for the analysis. The Copenhagen protocol shows how the meeting Gordon Brown called "the most important conference since the Second World War" ended in a diplomatic zero. As if viewed through a magnifying glass, the contours of a new political world order become visible, one shaped by the new self-confidence of the Asians and the powerlessness of the West.

"What are we waiting for?" Chancellor Merkel says in English, hoping to bring the faltering negotiations back on track. Meanwhile, more than 100 other world leaders, people who apparently had no say in the matter, were getting bored in the plenary chamber next door. They apparently believed, erroneously, as it turned out, that the 25-member mini-summit would produce some sort of document.

In fact, an oppressive mood had already spread through the halls of the congress center. The motley collection of environmental activists had been locked out of the conference by then, leaving only their abandoned booths standing in the no man's land of the world's supposed saviors.

'Any Objections'

Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen opened the meeting in the Arne Jacobsen room. Even though he was the host, Rasmussen lacked experience in the rules of engagement on the international stage, and he seemed a little disoriented in the maze of international climate politics. He said that a draft agreement had been worked out which reflected the concerns of the participating countries. "I think we have to now ask if there is some major objections," he said quietly in his not-quite-perfect English.

With little assurance left in his voice, he turned over the microphone to one of his legal advisers, who rattled off the corrections of mistakes that had crept into the hastily written draft agreement.

When has it ever been the case at an international conference that world leaders had to concern themselves with such minor details? "I don't think anything like this has ever happened, and I'm not sure whether something like this will ever happen again," says UN chief negotiator Yvo de Boer.

Environment ministers and bureaucrats had presented their bosses with a 200-page bundle of documents, because they had been unable to agree on emissions levels, reduction measures and control measures. When the heads of state and government arrived on Thursday, they were shocked by the chaos their subordinates had left for them after 10 days of negotiations.


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