Tuesday, January 20, 2009

China and the Climate Issue under Obama

President Obama's Inaugural Address, delivered yesterday, was music to the ears of those who care about climate change. As Climate Progress notes, Obama included a remarkable call "to nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say that we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders, nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect."

It's as if he had magically gathered all the anguished pleas from scientists, academics, environmentalists, and common folk over the past decade to act on climate, and made of them a poem. The time is now, and the most powerful man in the world gets it. With renewed spirit, this post looks again at the prospects for a new global climate deal that includes China.

The Necessity for US Leadership in Securing China's Cooperation

A few weeks ago, CGS wrote about an essay by a Chinese academic, Zhang Haibin, expressing optimism for progress on the climate issue under Obama. The greatest impediment to China's participation, wrote Zhang, is lack of American leadership. The consequences of this failure are elaborated in an excellent review of China's climate policy written by scholar Tu Jianjun:

Chinese policymakers and academia generally weigh GHG emissions control as significant liabilities instead of potential assets to the national economy. Such perceptions were reinforced by the outgoing Bush administration’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol in 2001 and most of Annex I countries’ failure to meet their Kyoto commitments. Beijing has already expressed it’s belief that any mandatory emission cap would unfairly limit the nation's economic growth. Thus, rejecting mandatory emissions caps will be the bottom line for Beijing’s climate policy in the foreseeable future. Ironically, although the U.S. government used the absence of key developing countries as an excuse to justify its withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol, the sudden disappearance of U.S. pressure on China in 2001 actually made it possible for Beijing to maintain a “wait and see” climate policy for quite a while.

In contrast, Tu goes on to note, a joint US-EU push would likely cajole Beijing into accepting greenhouse gas emissions reductions. As he puts it, "If developed nations as a whole could meet their GHG reduction commitments, it is not unimaginable that China may eventually accept an intensity-based mandatory GHG reduction target." Tu's argument, then, serves simply to underline the importance of American leadership in getting China to be part of a global climate deal. On the climate issue, at least, it seems many in China will be taking their cues from Washington in the coming months.

China is Watching

In a notable essay published just before Obama's inauguration entitled "Obama's 'change' can begin with the climate issue," (
奥巴马的“变革”可能从气候问题开始, in Chinese only) Tsinghua University scholar Guan Qingyou argues that Obama's climate policy can be the very emboidment of his "change" mantra. Guan outlines a remarkable vision in which President Obama's America becomes a "clean energy superpower," and reclaims the title of global climate leadership from Europe ("...领导美国成为清洁能源大国,并以积极的姿态参与国际气候谈判,从欧洲人手中重新夺回话语权。") Guan draws a sharp distinction between this vision of leadership, and the failed policy of former President Bush ("他还批评了小布什政府 的气候变化政策,表示在他的总统任期内他将带领美国重新在气候变化方面承担领导者的角色。")

Perhaps most notably, though, Guan expresses strong support for Obama's vision that a clean economy can also be a prosperous one. The new President's assertion that clean energy deployment can promote economic growth and create jobs, says Guan, is a sound one ("
奥巴马认为,清洁能源的开发计划是振兴美国经济的一部分,能够创 造出数百万个就业机会,成为美国经济的新的增长点。因此,应对气候变化与振兴经济并不矛盾。这一点笔者倒是非常认同...应对金融危机和气候危机的计划,是可以毕其功于一役的.")

Consensus is emerging among Western nations for strong action on climate change, he argues, and the trend is inexorable ("
从澳大利亚到美国,从陆克文到奥巴马,西方大国的政治领袖的观点正越来越趋于一致,即各国政府必须采取措施遏制和适应全 球气候变化的趋势"). The climate cause has become a global one, Guan says, and suggests that it has ceased to be a factual issue, instead becoming a matter of politics ("气候变化问题实在也已经很难再称之为有争议的科学问题了,而成为一种世界潮流、价值观或者说“宗教”。在这样的背景下,谈论气候变化问 题便有了一个“政治正确性”的问题“)。

Given this reality, Guan writes, the world will await America's metamorphasis.
It's up to America, he suggests, to prove to the world that economic growth and climate sustainability can go hand in hand. If it succeeds in articulating this, a true model for sustainable development, Guan indicates that China will be all ears ("

The Necessity of Now

So America has its marching orders to lead the world into a new era of climate cooperation, one which includes China. But some new research lends further impetus to begin the process without delay. A new paper from Harvard's Kennedy School argues that China's emissions growth will be faster than predicted, probably putting atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration stabilization targets out of reach within a decade or two, making China's participation on a global deal even more crucial (However, lower economic growth may slow emissions growth- see previous post). A separate, economic analysis of various climate agreement models indicated that, from a "cost and enforceability standpoint,
GHG stabilization at 450 ppm for CO2 only (a common standard) is hardly achievable." If these analyses prove to be correct, the politics of climate agreements, never simple, are likely to become almost impossibly complicated.

Once More Into the Breech, Dear Friends...

Obama was right to call for a new era of responsibility. As individuals, nations, and societies, we must become more aware of our responsibilities to one another. Only with respect to the common principle of responsibility does it make sense to save an intangible climate, and indeed, to save eachother. 人人都有责。

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