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.

1 comment:

  1. Great post. Hu Angang is an incredible person. I hope he represents the vanguard of climate change thinking in China. He has his work cut out for him in changing the rather rigid maindset of some the individuals actually in charge of China's climate negotiation efforts.