Sunday, November 2, 2008

Lord Stern's Lecture (Part Two) and China's Climate Negotiating Stance

Following that of last Tuesday, this post describes Lord Nicholas Stern's October 23 lecture at Beijing's Tsinghua University. It goes on to pose a broader explanation of China's climate negotiating stance.

Lord Stern's lecture laid out three principles to guide China's transition to a "low-carbon future": effectiveness, efficiency, and equity. The world should better recognize China's efforts to promote energy efficiency and develop renewable energy sources, Lord Stern urged, as well as strengthen technology transfer agreements with Beijing. Lord Stern was also careful to note the importance of American leadership in climate negotiations, terming it "crucial." Perhaps in a nod to Beijing's obsession with linking climate and development, Lord Stern concluded with the observation that the "two great challenges of the twenty-first century, tackling climate and poverty, are intrinsically linked."

Following Lord Stern, and on a similar note, Professor Angang Hu of Tsinghua's Center for the Study of China outlined a climate-responsibility approach based on the Human Development Index (HDI). HDI is a composite index calculated by the UN Development Program that ranks countries according to factors including GDP per capita, educational attainment, etc. High-HDI countries, argued Professor Hu, should agree to "unconditional" reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, while other nations take on "lesser responsibilities."

Professor Hu's HDI approach, in dis-aggregating the traditional developed-versus-developing country categories, puts a slightly different spin on the "common but differentiated responsibility" argument that Beijing holds so dear. Like Lord Stern, Professor Hu subtly implied that some big developing-country emitters (like China) should take on more responsibility for global GHG reductions.

Few impartial observers would disagree; sadly, the Chinese government is far from impartial. As a recent white paper entitled "China’s Policies and Actions for Addressing Climate Change" makes clear, Beijing refuses to accept significant responsibility for reducing GHG emissions. And without China doing so, the United States is unlikely to make major concessions in terms of agreeing to GHG cuts. This situation threatens to derail any possibility of an effective new climate agreement to supersede the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.

It's thus worth taking a closer look at China's position on the climate issue. The main official document on this topic is the 2007 "China's National Climate Change Program," produced by the National Development and Reform Commission. The program makes clear that developed countries must bear the brunt of GHG reductions: "The extent to which developing countries will effectively implement their commitments under the [UN Climate Change] Convention will depend on the effective implementation by developed countr[ies] of their basic commitments." Since the program was released, China has surpassed the United States as the world's largest GHG emitter (see previous post), and scientists have released ever-more dire predictions of the consequences of unmitigated GHG emissions. Yet China's stance hasn't changed.

The recent white paper highlights three justifications (I'll call them "excuses") for this reticence. First, China claims its development situation makes it unable to afford major GHG cuts. "A large population and a relatively low level of economy determine that China's development task is a formidable one," the white paper proclaims, particularly since "The large population also brings huge employment pressure. New urban labor force entrants of 10 million and above need jobs every year" (p. 3). Second, the white paper bears homage to the familiar historical-emissions argument: "According to data from relevant international research institutions, from 1904 to 2004, carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel burning in China made up only 8 percent of the world's total over the same period" (p. 3). Finally, and perhaps most disturbingly, the white paper seems to imply that China can develop its way out of responsibility for growing GHG emissions: "The Chinese government attaches great importance to the adjustment of the economic structure and the transformation of the economic development patterns, and has formulated and implemented a series of industrial policies and special programs to make the reduction of re-sources and energy consumption an important part of its industrial policies" (p. 10). Subsequent paragraphs make clear that "adjustment of the economic structure" means a transition towards service and high-tech industries, and away from big-polluter industries like coal. This claim is particularly disturbing because not only will such a transition take many years, but also because high-tech industries are not exactly carbon-neutral, accounting for about the same percentage of CO2 emissions as aviation.

So we have three excuses for not carrying the water when it comes to climate change. Some, especially the historic-emissions argument, are not wholly without merit. But China essentially asks for a free ride, with developing countries paying for its adoption of clean technology: "Developed countries should be responsible for their accumulative emissions and current high per-capita emissions, and take the lead in reducing emissions, in addition to providing financial support and transferring technologies to developing countries" (White Paper, p. 6). And when it comes to a global environmental challenge, the world's most populous nation has to pay at least part of the cost of resolution.

So what's to be done? Reading between the lines, there are a number of fruitful areas for international cooperation to prod China into agreeing to firm GHG reductions. First, Washington has to step up to the plate and lead the world towards a post-2012 agreement. The new president should call China on its pledge to "participate in all modes of international cooperation that are conducive to tackling climate change" by convening a major-emitters summit to both indicate its seriousness in agreeing to GHG emissions reductions, and to ask China to do the same. The summit can be followed by extensive bilateral talks under the aegis of the Strategic Economic Dialogue, which China takes very seriously. Such efforts have been tried and have failed before, but what can make the difference is the commitment of the next administration. Beijing certainly cannot be expected to make serious commitments without signals from Washington that it is important to do so.

Second, the United States should inaugurate a new program of bilateral technical assistance and academic exchange related to climate change. The flagging Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate should be re-energized and expanded with a mechanism for US government-financed transfer of green technologies to China. This mechanism might include a co-financing provision in order to prod China to invest more in the effort. The White Paper also suggests several fertile areas for bilateral cooperation in the adaptation technology China so keenly desires, which could help to build goodwill. The United States, despite its policy paralysis, has the best climate-science research facilities in the world, and partnerships with Chinese institutions can help accomplish the White Paper's goal of strengthening meteorological monitoring and climate change impact assessment (p. 8). Moreover, the increasing threat of tropical cyclones (Americans, think Hurricane Katrina) means that the United States and China have common cause in sharing expertise in restoring coastal ecosystems, which China's White Paper lists as a priority (p. 8). One could even envision a new exchange fellowship program, jointly funded by China and the United States, in which academic and professional experts who work on climate change could have the opportunity to conduct research in both countries.

Third, Western non-governmental organizations and institutions should embrace the opportunity to strengthen environmental education and environmental awareness efforts in China. Consider this extraordinary statement from the National Climate Change Program: "[An] Incentive mechanism should be established to encourage the public and enterprise participation in the climate change issue...[government should also focus on] increasing the transparency of decision-making on climate change issues; promoting the science and democracy in the area of climate change administration; giving full play to the initiative of social communities and non-governmental organizations" (National Climate Change Program, p. 55). Increase the transparency of decision-making? Promote democracy in administrative processes? Invite the participation of NGOs? This isn't what you usually hear from the Chinese government. There's exciting work to be done in developing environmental-awareness programs for Chinese schools, businesses, and maybe even government agencies. Western NGOs should be at the forefront. This is something that will be explored further in future posts.

Lord Stern was right to come to China (in fact he's come several times before). His renowned report makes clear that the cost of mitigating climate change is far less than adapting to its consequences. It's a concept the West is only just beginning to fully grasp. But for the sake of the planet, let's hope China gets it too, and soon.

1 comment:

  1. Great work. Came across it on the Environmental Law page. I'm an undergrad just finishing up a semester in Xiamen and now working on some research about green civil society in China. I'm a UWC grad too! small world. I'll be in Beijing from the 13th to the 20th - do you know of any environmental events/lectures happening?
    good luck !