Tuesday, October 28, 2008

China, Climate Change, and Climate Justice

This past Thursday, Nicholas Stern, author of the 2006 Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, gave a lecture at Beijing's Tsinghua University on the topic of China's role in combating global climate change. Lord Stern's central point was that a low-carbon economy is the only viable long-term economic future for China, a point which raises the more pressing issue of China's role in international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Sometime last year, China surpassed the United States as the world's largest national emitter of greenhouse gases (GHG), a dubious honor that makes clear China's central importance to any future climate change agreement. This importance is further enhanced by Beijing's sway among members of the G-77 developing-country negotiating bloc. Nonetheless, China has been notably reticent to play a leading role in climate change negotiations, and has vigorously resisted committing to "hard caps" on its GHG emissions. China's powerful National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) has laid out the principle that "developed countries should take the lead in reducing greenhouse gas emissions...the first and overriding priorities of developing countries are sustainable development and poverty eradication." This principle, which of course amounts to a giant cop-out, has continued to frame Beijing's negotiating position with respect to climate change.

A cop-out, but a reasoned one: it is true that developed countries are responsible for the vast majority of historic, anthropogenic GHG emissions-- those that are now changing the global climate. At the same time, developed nations are better equipped, financially, technologically, and administratively, to adapt to the challenges posed by climate chnge. And so we reach the crux of the global climate question: how do you constrcut a fair and equitable agreement by which China and other rapidly developing countries reduce their emissions?

Many climate justice thinkers, including Princeton's Peter Singer, argue that a per-capita allocation of emissions, in which each person would recieve the "right" to emit and equal amount of GHG (or simply carbon dioxide) emissions, best satisfies the condition of fairness, since it essentially equates every human being, regardless of nationality, wealth, etc. Fair, perhaps, but radical: as Lord Stern points about, China's per-capita CO2 emissions amount to approximately 5 tons (MTCO2E), Europe's to 12, and America's to an astounding 20. A per-capita allocation would involve a staggering redistribution of the "right to pollute," and potentially an unprecedented redistribution of wealth, as well, as big emitters like America purchase the right to emit from lower-per-capita emitters like India (some 2.5 MTCO2E).

Understandably, countries like the United States balk at such a formula. Notably, a recent recent paper entitled "Justice and Climate Change," authored by law professors Eric Posner and Cass Sunstein, concludes that even a per-capita allocation would not "in practice satisfy objectives of fairness and welfare redistribution." And so the impasse continues.

Might there be a better way? Even if the next round of climate negotiations, which is supposed to produce a world-saving follow-on to the Kyoto Protocol, fails to answer the climate justice question, there's plenty that developed nations can do to help the developing world reduce emissions. This includes technology transfer, technical assistance, and policy advice on how to green businesses, supply chains, and everyday lives. It's not as grand or sexy as an international treaty, but it may be crucial. That will be the subject of future posts.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Introducing China Greenspace

This blog is about China's environmental future, and what it means for the rest of the world. It uses the word "greenspace" to refer to the intersection of political, social, economic, and ecological dimensions of environmental change in China. It's about the big picture (though it will occasionally covers the very small).

First, a brief introduction: I'm a recent graduate of Princeton University, now a Fulbright Fellow with the Environmental Economics and Policy Study Group at Peking University in Beijing. My interest in China's environment began during my time as a student at Li Po Chun United World College of Hong Kong, where I helped to monitor the health of several coral reefs. Over the course of my two years in Hong Kong, I saw China's economic growth take a steady toll on the ecosystems that I studied. I've returned to China because in the environmental field, as in so many others, China's future portends that of the world at large.

Second, a disclaimer: Nothing I say in this blog represents anything other than my own opinion. And it's by no means an authoritative one. If there's one thing I know from studying China's environment, it's how much I don't know. This blog is less about what's been done in Chinese environmental studies than what is left to do.

So, third and finally, an invitation: please comment, contribute, and criticize. We're after the Truth, after all.