Thursday, November 13, 2008

China's Environmental Regionalism

Last Thursday, Beijing played host to the 4th Regional Air Quality Management Conference, a joint initiative of the Ministry of Environmental Protection and the US Environmental Protection Agency. CGS was in attendance for the first day of a conference that, true to its name, emphasized the necessity of regional approaches in combating air pollution. This seems pretty straightforward: air pollution doesn't respect municipal boundaries, so in major metropolises it is usually a multi-jurisdictional concern. But in China, discussions about environmental regionalism serve to highlight continuing gaps in the country's environmental governance structure, and so are worthy of our further attention.

American experts highlighted the trend in US air pollution control policy towards increasing regionalism. Art Williams, a consultant with the Regulatory Assistance Project, noted the growth in Regional Planning Organizations as a result of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, which serve as an important forum for federal-state cooperation. Metropolitan Planning Organizations have a similar function, but focus on urban areas instead of large geographic regions. Nonetheless, these MPOs are important because, according to Williams, they help to focus transportation policy-making and coordination, and because federal transportation spending is tied to sound planning processes by these MPOs. These kinds of regional approaches, American experts agreed, were crucial to successfully reducing air pollution while also expanding regional economies and populations.

China has also given rise to some successful regional air pollution control efforts, most notably in the Pearl River Delta, which includes Hong Kong, Macau, and Guangdong Province. A representative of the Guangdong Provincial Environmental Protection Bureau described the creation in 2003 of a regional air pollution management plan, and joint daily air quality monitoring since 2005. In 2008, the "Guangdong-Pearl River Delta Atmospheric Pollution Mitigation Joint Conference" (广东省珠江三角洲大气污染防治联席会议) pledged to develop a regional control scheme for atmospheric pollutants, as well as measurement and verification systems for pollution control. The Bureau outlined a regional strategy based on four pillars, joint policy, research, emissions reduction engineering, and regional mitigation technology. The Conference will remain the primary coordination body, with a subsidiary Office and Research Center, each overseeing policy and research expert networks.

Such structures represent a good start towards genuine environmental regionalism. However, these structures are not as robust as their American counterparts, principally because they lack some of the legislative buttressing. Yan Gang of the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning offered a compelling vision of regional air pollution management in the Yangtze Delta region, centered around Shanghai. Gang called for a regional air quality management board, chartered and overseen by the Ministry of Environmental Protection, as well as a regional center for pollution forecasting and policy development, accompanied by a regional monitoring network. Perhaps most boldly, Gang called for a single platform to integrate energy-air quality policy.

This far-reaching vision raises wider questions of what greater environmental regionalism might mean for China. In America, as Mr. Williams pointed out, regional consortia have been used to develop policy leadership in areas such as climate change, where central government action has been perceived as being behind the curve. Environmental regionalism might help to ease policy coordination between the central, provincial, and municipal levels of government, and might make enforcement simpler. It may also help to circumvent the entrenched local political interests which so notoriously undermine environmental policy enforcement throughout China, and may provide a more accessible structure for local stakeholders to access and engage. Perhaps most importantly, however, greater environmental regionalism might create the necessary political space for local policy entrepreneurship. As several of the Conference speakers pointed out, there are three obvious candidates for greater environmental regionalism: Beijing-Tianjin, the Shanghai/Yangtze River Delta area, and the Pearl River Delta. All face more complex environmental challenges than the nation as a whole, including severe air and water pollution combined with a high concentration of greenhouse gas intensive industries. Given both political support and freedom by the central government, consortia in these regions may well develop innovative solutions to their environmental problems.

There are stumbling blocks, to be sure. Regional structures would most likely require significant financing from the central government, and certainly would need to operate with a degree of political cover from the center. Central government agencies would perhaps sense threats to their own power and influence. But it does seem that many of China's most pressing environmental problems would be better addressed by a regional governance structure. US and other foreign assistance in the environmental area could be shifted towards regional actors; EPA might make it a priority, for example, to help establish a Yangtze Delta air pollution control consortium. Regardless, CGS came away from the conference convinced that both China and its friends abroad should work to strengthen environmental regionalism throughout the country.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Beijing High-Level Conference on Climate Change, Technology Development, and Technology Transfer

Sponsored by both the Chinese Government and the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the High-Level Conference was held this past week in Beijing to "promote international technology development and transfer, as well as the international negotiation process on climate change." Underscoring the importance Beijing attached to the event, the conference opened with remarks from senior Chinese officials, including Premier Wen Jiabao and Zhang Ping, Director of the National Development and Reform Commission. According to Zhang, some 600 delegates (including China Greenspace, which weaseled itself in) from 70 countries attended the conference.

Despite all the hoopla, the conference appeared mostly to buttress Beijing's determination to place technology transfer at the heart of its climate negotiating stance (see previous post). The conference comes at a crucial time, following hard on the heels of China's recent white paper on climate change, and little more than a month before the annual UN Framework Convention on Climate Change- Conference of the Parties. With this timing in mind, the conference positioned Beijing as a leading voice calling for developed nations to take greater responsibility for reducing global emissions, and for accelerating green technology transfer and development in the developing world.

Premier Wen's opening statement set just such a tone: "Climate change is a global issue, and concerns the prosperity and development of all countries. China's government takes climate change seriously, and always asks responsibly. It has made serious efforts to combat climate change, assigned tasks to all levels of government, and changed patterns of production and consumption towards a more sustainable level." Wen cited a number of statistics regarding China's efforts to green its infrastructure, before emphasizing China's status as a developing country. Noting that China's per-capita greenhouse gas emissions are about 1/3 that of developed nations, Wen then alleged that a large proportion of its emissions come from "subsistence" activities necessary to eliminate poverty, as well as from industrial enterprises transplanted from the West. In a further knock at developed nations, the Premier noted that developed nations established environmental regulations in fits and starts over time, while China faces a "compressed timeline" to do so. Wen did, however, pledge that China would strive to create a "low input, high output" economy.

From the outset, then, the conference made clear that it is up to the West to pay for its past climatological sins by financing technology transfer. NDRC Director Zhang proposed a new framework to do so, based on four parameters:

1) A new, specialized agency, set up under the UN Framework Convention, to speed technology transfer. The agency would work with designated technology development agencies in each country to coordinate technology transfer.

2) A new, specialized financing mechanism through which developed nations would provide "stable and predictable" funding for technology transfer and development.

3) A provision in a new climate agreement to review the implementation of parties on technology transfer and development [CGS: essentially an enforcement/compliance provision]

4) Use of private sector to mobilize and leverage resources for technology transfer.

Belief in the need for such a framework is not limited only to Chinese government officials. Yvo de Boer, Executive Secretary of the UN's Climate Change Secretariat, stated that a "global green economic transformation is inconceivable without green technology at its heart"; Ricardo Lagos, the UN's current Special Envoy on Climate Change, similarly cited the need to ensure that clean energy technology should be available to all countries.

In the conference itself, a number of crucial issues for clean technology transfer and development emerged. Many developing nations stressed the need for greater government involvement, even as developed nations stressed that private-sector capital has to be used to leverage technology gains. There was consensus that while the diffusion of advanced, clean technologies is an urgent priority for the international community, the ultimate objective must be to strengthen green technology development capacity around the world. Some experts, including Cath Bremner of the UK's Carbon Trust, emphasized that this capacity includes strengthening regulations, business environments, academic research bases, and "cultures" that encourage innovation.

Perhaps the most important technical issue with respect to clean technology transfer and development concerns intellectual property rights (IPR). Strict IPR regulations and concerns in the West present a significant barrier to the diffusion of clean technology One German government official involved in technology transfer noted that German wind power companies do not seven want to sell their latest turbine models in China, for fear that they will be reverse-engineered and copied by Chinese producers. A number of experts proposed that IPR regulations, such as compulsory licensing, be loosened with respect to clean energy technology. A South Korean official, for example, noted that the United States provides IPR exemptions for technologies that contribute substantially to public welfare or national security, and proposed that clean energy be added as a third such category. In the humble opinion of CGS, unresolved IPR considerations will nonetheless continue to discourage companies from innovation and diffusion in the green tech arena.

Technical issues aside, the crucial implications of the conference were with respect to developing country commitments to reduce emissions. The conference's closing statement, which affirmed commitment to the principle of "common but differentiated responsibility," appeared to place the onus on the West to both develop and finance the technology to reduce emissions throughout the world. As CGS has argued previously, this stance imperils a global deal on climate change. A promising, if incomplete, way forward was offered by Harvard's Kelly Gallagher, who proposed a global bargain on technology transfer. Developed nations, Gallagher proposed, would created a Carbon Mitigation Fund to pay for all incremental (marginal) costs of implementing low-carbon technology. In exchange, developing countries who wish to access the fund would adopt "concrete, enforceable" emissions reductions plans.

This is just the kind of bargain that might underpin a global climate deal. It addresses developed countries' responsibility to finance adoption of the newest, greenest technology, while also acknowledging that developing countries will soon account for the majority of the world's emissions. Yet this kind of deal also involves much harsher terms than China, on the basis of this conference, appears prepared to accept. We can only hope that the passage of the next few months, and the appearance of new leaders like Barack Obama, will help to change minds.

In the meantime, the conference suggested some new ways that technology transfer can be enhanced without addressing the big, thorny questions. The final conference report claimed that a 70% reduction in global emissions can be accomplished without IPR issues, primarily by financing adoption of energy efficiency technology in developing nations. Richard Bradley of the International Energy Agency had particularly innovative ideas, for example, for improving the performance of consumer electronics. Additionally, many experts highlighted the importance of human capital in transferring technology. New academic and fellowship exchange programs between developed and developing nations could prove a profitable investment in enhancing this kind of social capital.

As the High-Level Conference concluded, CGS was left with the impression that the upcoming UNFCCC negotiations might be rocky indeed. Here's to hoping that China, and the world, looks beyond technology to the great and overarching challenge we all face to live sustainably and responsibly.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

It's time

Full disclosure: the title for this post was shamelessly foisted from that of
The Economist's most recent issue, which endorses Senator Barack Obama for the Presidency of the United States.

It's almost midnight, Beijing time, on Tuesday, November 4. By noon tomorrow, the results of America's epic presidential contest should be known to the world. Most observers have all but declared Senator Obama the victor, and Chinagreenspace (CGS) will assume no differently. So in the gravity of the moment, it's worth enduring a bit of mission creep for CGS to consider the world's future under an Obama Administration.

Four hundred years after the first slave ship landed in America, forty years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Americans have chosen a black man to lead them through the tumult of war and recession. For their salvation, they have looked to the son of a Kenyan immigrant, brought up in Indonesia with the middle name of "Hussein." Americans of forty years ago, or of only four, would have shaken their heads in stunned disbelief. But today, they have handed Mr. Obama the keys to the White House.

It's almost a wonder that he still wants them. The junior senator from Illinois will face perhaps the greatest set of political challenges since the Roosevelt Administration, and with one of the thinnest political resumes of any modern president. The one decided advantage Mr. Obama is set to enjoy-- an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress-- could prove to be his Achilles' heel. If he proves incapable of resisting Congressional demands to govern from the political left, Mr. Obama may well lead his party to disaster in the 2010 mid-term elections. Mr. Obama has promised Hope and Change to a desperate nation. If he fails to deliver, the bursting of America's financial bubble may be followed by the popping of a psychological one. Challenges, then, all around.

Barack Obama has defied all expectations to become the next President of the United States. He may face even longer odds to be a good one.

Yet for all the uncertainty, we should be grateful that Mr. Obama will soon take the oath of office. On the eve of the election, Senators Obama and McCain wrote opposing editorials in The Wall Street Journal, each endorsing their own respective candidacies. Senator McCain: "we cannot spend the next four years as we have spent much of the last eight: waiting for our luck to change...We have to fight for it." Senator Obama: "If there's one thing we've learned from this economic crisis, it's that we are all in this together...together, we will change this country and change the world." So there it is: curl up your fist, or lend a hand.

Curling up your fist won't knock out the cancer of terror. It won't cow financial markets into docile submission. And it won't pound the global thermostat back to pre-industrial levels. But with a lot of help from your friends-- and you'll need quite a few-- you just might wipe out the root causes of extremism, jump-start global investment flows, and broker a global agreement to build a sustainable society. And after we've all seen the Twin Towers fall, watched our banks crumble, and felt the planetary temperature rise, that's the best hope we have.

Barack Obama deserves our thanks for giving us that much. But all else is now up to him.

It's time.

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.