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COP15 and modernizing China

Much seem to be at stake at the ongoing UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen (COP15), but as week one of two neares its end, little progress has been made. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that what's at stake is not only political and economical interests. Also, the status of science is debated: What are trustworthy data? To what extent can scientific evidence overrule political procedures?

As Latour might say, scientific facts are a result of the stabilization of contested knowledge. The belief in pure science is a mistake of the modernists and this has never been reality in Europe. China, he is known to argue, are on the other hand trying more than anyone to modernize these days.

This was evident during their side event presentation on the fourth day of the COP15. Presenting a panel of the preeminent Chinese scholars on climate change, the first power point slide stressed: "no politics, no diplomats, pure academic perspective".

Most will probably consider this a good intention. And it is probably a product of both modernization and fear of authorities. But moving into the presentation, the Chinese academics did not even try to look purely scientific, which gave them a shine of honesty and straightforwardness that the IPCC would die for these days.

Concluding, the Chinese scientists stressed that the only just solution was a "common, but non-differentiated" CO2 emission budget. This directly confronts the UNFCCC goal of "common but differentiated" responsibilities and is thus far from unpolitical. The Chinese "emissions budget" presented suggested that the developed world has far less "emission rights" remaining, due to historical emissions. The controversy thus seems to be whether or not historical emissions should be included when calculating how much CO2 each person on the planet can be allowed to emit in order to keep global warming inside a given limit.

The "scientific" justification logic of the Chinese academics is of course not universally applicable, but as long as the Chinese assume that, they might be very hard to negotiate with. As they say:

"Developing countries are defending their rights, but some major developed countries are merely defending their interests"

Insofar as the notion of universal rights is a modern perspective, are we perhaps here seeing a clash between a modern(izing) China and a nonmodern Western world (with the Third World as hostages)?

It will be most interesting to follow the developments during the high-level segment of the "climate" negotiations next week.

(As an assistant to the press area in COP15, I am priviledged to be able to follow the negotiations closely)