Saturday, April 18, 2009

Co-authored editorial with Julian Wong of Green Leap Forward

Readers of this blog will be familiar with the argument that a bolder, more aggressive stance on climate change will benefit China in a great many ways. The following is a hopefully more persuasive version of that argument, co-authored with Julian Wong of The Green Leap Forward, and published in last week's China Daily:

The year 2009 may well be remembered as the Year of Climate Cooperation. Shortly after the New Year, the inauguration of Barack Obama heralded a new effort to reduce America's greenhouse gas emissions, and to place special emphasis on working with China on climate issues. In a few more months, the world's nations will gather in Copenhagen, Denmark, to try to forge a global agreement to prevent catastrophic climate change.

The tide of history is shifting towards a belated but crucial effort to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. China has a uniquely important opportunity to help shape this momentous new chapter in history, one that can be grasped by taking a new look at its national policy on climate change.

The Chinese government's 2008 "White Paper on China's Policies and Actions on Climate Change," together with the 2007 National Climate Change Program, outlines substantial efforts to improve energy efficiency and reduce emissions. China has an opportunity to build on this effort by formulating a visionary policy that will enhance its national security, promote sustainable economic development and position it as a full partner in one of the most important global efforts of our era.

A visionary national climate change policy should be forward-thinking - too much time has been wasted in debates over the carbon that is "embedded" in China's exports and the responsibility of developed nations for the majority of historical global emissions.

These arguments are not wholly without merit but miss the point at a time when all nations, including China, must act quickly to build energy-efficient, low-carbon economies or risk runaway climate change.

A national climate change policy should also express China's willingness, in time, to commit to greenhouse gas emissions reductions, focusing initially on specific industrial sectors and, eventually, on economy-wide "caps" on total emissions. This step is necessary since battling climate change requires the decrease of absolute emissions of each nation, as opposed to merely decreasing energy consumption per unit of GDP, which is China's current policy.

The policy should use a mixture of incentives and mandates, to place China on the road to an energy transformation, away from conventional fossil-fuel power generation and towards the use of renewable energy sources and energy conservation measures.

China will benefit from a bold and visionary climate policy in several areas including enhanced security since the country will be in an increasingly precarious position as a result of changing climate, particularly in terms of water availability.

Most of the major river systems that feed and water China, India, and Southeast Asia depend on meltwater from the Himalayan region. Climate change is endangering this vital source of water for 60 percent of the human population. Himalayan glaciers, which provide some 70 percent of the flow of major Asian rivers, are melting at an extremely rapid rate; one study, published in the prestigious journal Nature, predicts that the Himalayan-Hindu Kush region will start to "run out of water" during the dry season. Besides disrupting agricultural activities and destabilizing massive and volatile populations, such a situation would imperil China's economic growth.

Additionally, the aggressive pursuit of a truly low carbon economy can help establish an era of unparalleled innovation and economic prosperity. A study by CERNA, for example, shows that countries that committed themselves to mandatory emissions reductions under the Kyoto Protocol experienced increased levels of innovation in green technologies over those that did not.

The depth and diversity of these economic development opportunities are enormous; China can create millions of urban, high-tech jobs in the manufacture, installation, operation and maintenance of renewable power systems. It can also revive rural economies through the development of sustainable agriculture practices. In all regions, huge amounts of money can be saved as citizens breathe cleaner air and drink cleaner water, reducing the incidence of some diseases.

Action on climate change is also an important sign of membership in the international community. Climate change has emerged as a global issue of paramount importance and by demonstrating that it is prepared to act boldly to combat climate change , China can help to reinforce its image as a responsible nation. Two Hunan University professors wrote in a recent China Daily editorial that "developing a low-carbon economic is a must as China continues to industrialize, not only for the nation's energy security but also as part of an urgent international responsibility to address global climate change."

By embracing this responsibility, China can gain recognition as a full partner in one of the most important global efforts in human history, while also ensuring it has a seat at the table as a global agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is forged.

The fundamental value in a bold, visionary national climate policy is that it builds the foundation for a sustainable future. China stands to gain a great deal from becoming a leader in green technologies, a resource-efficient economy, and a largely self-sufficient energy consumer. China's current policy on climate change is significant and a step in the right direction, but hopefully it represents merely a rough draft of a strategy equal to the challenge of climate change.

Scott Moore is a Fulbright Fellow with the Environmental Economics and Policy Study Group at Peking University. Julian Wong is an independent energy analyst, founder of the Beijing Energy Network, and author of the blog The views expressed in the article are their own.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Bridging the developed/developing nation divide on climate

One of the thorniest aspects of the global climate problem is how to apportion the burdens of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The old rich world is responsible for the vast majority of historic anthropogenic emissions, but the growth in global emissions comes largely from emerging markets, especially the Indo-Chinese giants.

As a result, scholars and climate experts devote a lot of time to thinking about how to break the deadlock (see previous post). Hu Angang, an economist at Tsinghua University, published an essay recently on China Dialogue that presents an interesting take on the issue, and proposes a new emissions reduction trajectory for China, which will be crucial to the success of the overall global effort to reduce emissions (see Climate Progress).

Essentially, Hu proposes defining four categories for emissions-reduction purposes based on the Human Development Index (HDI): high, medium-high, medium-low, and low. The last two categories would have no responsibility to reduce emissions, while the medium-high group, of which China is a member, would have emissions-reductions targets calculated according to the gap in their HDI value from the high category (0.8 or above on the HDI). These distinctions would also be used to calculate financing of adaptation and technology transfer.

According to Hu's formula, the following roadmap should be set for China:

By 2020 carbon dioxide emissions should have peaked;
By 2030 there should be annual emissions of less than 2.2 billion tonnes (a reduction to 1990 levels).
By 2050 there should be annual emissions of less than 1.1 billion tonnes (half of 1990 levels).

By way of comparison, the US emitted about 1.6 billion tonnes of carbon in 2007 (see article).

Promising as these targets are, what is more significant is Hu's phraseology in promoting them:

China’s international emissions reduction policy is not in step with the world. China is still considered a developing country, with no emissions reduction responsibilities, commitments or contributions toward meeting an international consensus.

A public commitment to reduce emissions, backed by central government targets, would be a massive spur to domestic emissions cuts. Participation in international climate-change negotiations and adopting climate-change regulations can provide the opportunity to implement of a beneficial energy and climate policy. More importantly, worsening climate change will increase the pressure to cut emissions. Failure to change energy and climate policy will mean choosing to fight over resources.
Yes, yes, yes! Hu's HDI approach is interesting, since it in theory ties mitigation burden to a broader range of factors than simply wealth; HDI is intended to measure institutional capacity and quality of life as well. But what's far more important is the premise of Hu's argument: that China's current climate change policy is out of step with the times, with its own national interest, and with reality.

In several recent, previous posts, CGS has described a shift in tone on climate issues. Hu's essay is another indication that elite opinion in China may be shifting towards one that accepts more concrete responsibility to reduce emissions. Let's certainly hope that shift is in evidence at the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen this December.