Friday, June 19, 2009

Report from "China and Global Climate Change" Conference at Lingnan University, Hong Kong

CGS has been in Hong Kong this week as a participant in the "China and Global Climate Change" conference at Lingnan University. The conference has been remarkable in the range of perspectives represented, including everything from psychology to meteorology to social theorists. As one of the few academic gatherings with a specific focus on China and climate change, CGS strongly recommends checking out the conference website for access to the proceedings.

A few things of particular note:

First, many of those focusing on China's participation in global climate negotiations were pessimistic, primarily because there is a great deal of scepticism that the goals of fairness (i.e., accounting for the West's historic emissions) can be reconciled with the ecological imperative of preventing severe climate change. One political theorist (papers are currently not for attribution- sorry!) suggested that this situation should compel Western countries to take a hard line with China and other developing nations, essentially jettisoning the fairness consideration in favor of taking punitive measures, such as carbon tariffs, on imports from countries which refuse to participate in global efforts to reduce emissions.

Second, assessments of localized climate impacts appear to grow only more complex. One, particularly thorough study of climate change impacts on food security suggested that when all factors are considered, including socio-economic and water availability changes, food production is likely to remain largely unchanged under most IPCC climate scenarios. However, local impacts will be likely to vary tremendously, and expensive adaptation will likely be required to mitigate negative climate impacts on agriculture.

Third, more attention needs to be paid to changing consumption patterns in China, especially in the longer run. This will include buying fewer new-use products, low-emission buildings, hybrid-electric vehicles and bikes, and generally building more sustainable cities (in this vein, it's welcome news that China will build 19 urban railways by 2015). Such an emphasis on low-carbon lifestyles will be a big shift from the government's current, production-side focus on reducing energy and resource consumption (the Circular Economy concept). NGOs may therefore have to play a crucial role.

To CGS, the conference reinforced the point that climate negotiations with China will come down to two things: how clean technology is transferred to China, and how adaptation efforts are financed. The first part will likely require innovative licensing arrangements for technology developed in the US but produced in China, and Congress won't like that very much. The second goal will likely need to be focused on agriculture and rural development.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Report from Stern's visit to Beijing

Todd Stern and a US climate cooperation delegation made an appearance at a roundtable discussion at Tsinghua University today, which CGS weaseled itself into. It was "off the record," so to to maintain whatever journalistic integrity it has, CGS will only refer to general comments and threads of discussion (Chatham House rules).

With one exception, a really good, but unattributable quote: "We are mindful of the unforgiving imperative of the atmosphere." Well, CGS for one will sleep a little better knowing that.

Unfortunately, the rules of the game haven't changed: China still emphasizes the need for growth and development, while the US side slowly chips away at China's protests that it is a developing country, noting that China cannot claim to be as helpless in the face of climate change as, say, Haiti.

However, the roundtable did come closer to identifying a key negotiating front than previous sessions: technology cooperation. The Chinese side, possibly because it was dominated by representatives of the energy and engineering bureaucracy, constantly called for technology transfer. The US side forthrightly said that the United States has neither the monetary resources nor the political will to finance China's clean energy transformation: it can purchase the technology on the open market. What's needed, they said, is closer to an equitable (presumably meaning the US won't pay) "technology cooperation" arrangement.

A possible foundation for compromise emerged when Chinese representatives responded by saying that the US can do more to promote development of technologies that meet China's needs as a developing country, something most feasibly done through private-sector partnerships. Governments, meanwhile, can collaborate on enhancing China's capacity for clean technology deployment and implementation, especially in the area of measuring, verifying, and reporting emissions.

That might be something Congress can live with. But one big hurdle remains, and one recognized by both sides: intellectual property (IP). Both sides noted that there's a lot of misunderstanding on this issue, that China is actually better on some IP issues than it's given credit for, and that there's a whole range of technologies, mostly in energy efficiency, where IP issues are not a significant impediment.

So long and short, a focus of continued negotiations should be on capacity building in technology transfer, not simply discussion of the transfer and financing itself. To offer some CGS commentary, the Chinese side didn't seem to be budging much, but that's understandable: at a minimum, the US has to pass domestic cap and trade legislation before China can be expected to make any concessions. But you do have to take a step back and think: a bunch of earnest, capable people all speaking frankly about the importance of US-China climate cooperation for the future of the world. That would have been almost unimaginable a year ago.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Mr. Stern goes to Beijing

Todd Stern, the chief American climate negotiator, arrived yesterday in Beijing for talks meant to pave the way for Copenhagen. The New York Times quoted Congressman Edward Markey, co-sponsor of the American Clean Energy and Security Act, who recently returned from a Beijing trip, as saying, "This is going to be one of the most complex diplomatic negotiations in the history of the world."

It's not too much hyperbole to go even further and say it will also be one of the most important, determining a great deal of the ecological fate of the world this century. Given this importance, what China says and does between Stern's visit and the negotiations at Copenhagen will also signal a great deal about what kind of country China really is, and what kind of power it aspires to become. If it offers sensible concessions and true partnership to the United States, we can be reassured that China wants to buy into a rules-based global order, in which there is a strong presumption of common interest. It would also speak well of China's technocratic regime (though it will be, and should be, forever in the shadow of Mao's totalitarianism and Tiannanmen). If, on the other hand, China sticks to its current talking points, which offer no concrete emissions reduction and continue to blame the West for climate change, we can all grow a lot more concerned about the future of international cooperation.

(See also Julian Wong's excellent summary of what China has done to date on climate change).

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Climate change as a security issue for China

CGS has been absent for the last month, having been caught on the wrong side of China's Great Firewall (The twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre was Thursday). CGS has also been working on a paper entitled "Climate Change, Water, and China's National Security," to be presented at a conference in Hong Kong later this month.

Here's what CGS learned and concluded:

China and its neighboring countries are in for several acute water-related impacts as a result of climate change. Some areas of northwest China and eastern India will face severe irrigation challenges as water availability from Himalayan glacial meltwater decreases precipitously by the end of the century. Second, arid regions of China, especially the north, will become even drier. Third, south China and the Mekong delta will come under severe risk of catastrophic flooding. Essentially, most parts of China will have too little water when they need it (the dry season), and too much when they don't (the wet season).

China is fortunate in that it is wealthy enough that it can adapt to many of the worst consequences of these climactic changes. It can build dams and flood control infrastructure to store water and prevent destructive flooding, and it can invest in massive schemes like the South-North Water Transfer project to redress regional water shortages. Even if water shortages threaten crop production in China's breadbasket northern regions, China is wealthy enough that it can import much greater amounts of food.

What is clear is that water-related climate impacts will stress social and political institutions. Yes, China can invest in adaptation, but it will be expensive. Government agencies and the military will be harder pressed to develop response capabilities to water shortages. Meanwhile, water shortages threaten social stability in fragile areas of China, especially Xinjiang. Finally, water issues will become a more prominent feature of China's foreign relations, for which it is currently unprepared and inexperienced.

Climate change does not (obviously) threaten China's security in the same way that Soviet Russia once did, or that (according to the censors...) Twitter does today (it has been blocked for weeks). Rather, it will be an acute stress factor for social and political actors. Add in the many other such stressors (income inequality, economic hardship, political illiberalism, etc), and China will be compelled to pay more attention to climate impacts in the coming years.

Of course, and this is important on the eve of the US climate envoy's visit to China, China wouldn't have to worry so much if it commits to reduce its GHG emissions at Copenhagen this December. CGS believes the enduring value of seeing climate as a strategic issue for China is that it can help compel Beijing to see that climate change will stress China's social and political foundations, and is not simply an economic or ecological issue. Many of the government's great projects, such as the Western Development Project (Xibu da kaifa) will be greatly imperiled by climate impacts.

On an only partially related note:

A brief word on the climate negotiations: I've recently been in several fora where I've gotten into arguments about the necessity of China accepting firm commitments, and it's just this simple: China is too big for it to be an X factor in the global climate equation. Any formula the negotiators come up with in Copenhagen is meaningless unless China's contribution is codified.

CGS knows it's preaching to the choir here, but had to get that off its chest.