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The Dragon in the Room? China and Copenhagen

Article, 24 November 2009
Global Security Issues, International Institutions
America's absence in the global climate change framework leaves China in an influential position at Copenhagen

As the Copenhagen climate talks draw nearer, the focus is being shifted to the United States and China as the two states that can make or break the talks. With little chance of the US passing its own climate change legislation in time, China will be in an influential position to shape the eventual outcome to its own agenda.

China’s unwillingness to accept legally binding climate change proposals will be a central issue in the talks. China and other developing nations confidently assert that it was the developed world that has (historically) contributed the most to the problem of climate change, and therefore it should bear the brunt of any measures to combat it. Much of what is produced in China is done so on the behalf of Western economies, which have moved significant portions of their production capability to China in the hunt for cheaper labour and fewer regulations. The goods are consumed in the West whilst the pollution is left in China and little thought is given to it by the end user. By reminding Western economies of this fact, China will be able to relieve some of the pressure it will face during Copenhagen.

The lack of US commitment to tough cuts could well be played upon by China during the December Copenhagen talks to exonerate itself from measures it disagrees with, and it will almost certainly be keen to remind delegates that the US produces more emissions per capita than China.
However the idea that China – which has become responsible for 23 per cent of green house gas (GHG) emissions in 2008 and overtook the US as the world’s single largest emitter – should not be subject to a legally binding effort to reduce total emissions is clearly untenable. The response from developed nations in this argument is that future emissions must also be taken in to account. Projections from now until 2050 indicate that developing nations will be just as culpable in bringing about irreversible damage to the climate should nothing be done. A recent study by the US-based Energy Foundation states that if China’s energy consumption trend remains unchanged, by 2050 it will emit 17 billion tons of GHG, making it responsible for 60 per cent of global emissions.

The Kyoto treaty is nearly twelve years old, and its critics are adamant that it is time for a replacement. The general opinion of the developed world going in to Copenhagen is that Kyoto has not worked. Simply put, it has not decreased emissions, and a new treaty is desperately needed which can sufficiently penalise non-compliance of signatory states. During this same time period, the economies of developing states such as China, India, and Brazil have grown enormously, and so too has their emissions of GHGs. The biggest increase in emissions has come from China, which saw an increase of 128.9 per cent by 2005 on 1990 levels. India’s emissions increased by 95 per cent and Brazil’s by 70.8 per cent. The key elements of the proposed Copenhagen agreement include:

  • Binding targets for mid-term emissions reductions from developed countries (at least 80 per cent by 2050 on 1990 levels)
  • A long-term global emissions target – no more than a two degree rise on pre-industrial levels, by 2050
  • Actions by developing countries to curb their emissions
  • Financing for developing countries to cope with the effects of global warming.

The developed world may have created the problem, but it will require a co-ordinated and committed effort from developed and developing nations to achieve a workable and worthwhile solution to the threat of climate change. China must become part of the solution rather than carrying on as it is, exacerbating the problem. Even if a shared sense of responsibility and a common outcome is established in Copenhagen, the matter of who should cough up the estimated €100 billion a year it will cost to finance the objectives will be a huge sticking point. Such a vast sum has drawn extra attention due to the global recession. Many nations are not sure where the money can realistically come from, other than adding to pre-existing debt, and public opinion is largely unenthusiastic about the prospect of giving billions to developing nations.

How will China Behave in Copenhagen?

China is unlikely to agree to the strict targets likely to be proposed at Copenhagen as it is wary that the developed countries are attempting to bring in protectionism through the back door. In accordance with its status as a developing country, China is keen to hold on to the principles of the Kyoto treaty: these do not put pressure on China to curb its emissions output, and thus its potential growth. About 8 per cent of GHG emissions can be attributed to China for the period 1904-2004 and China is eager to remind the West of this fact when the suggestion is made that they too must begin to adhere to strict cuts.

The best indicator of what we can expect from China in Copenhagen comes from the Chinese National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC). They released an official document in May of this year outlining the Chinese government’s position on the Copenhagen talks. The document covers issues of technology transfer and development, and the Chinese position on who should finance climate change projects. One of the key features of the document is ‘The Principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities’ which states that:

Developed countries shall take responsibility for their historical cumulative emissions and current high per capita emissions to change their unsustainable way of life and to substantially reduce their emissions and, at the same time, to provide financial support and transfer technology to developing countries. Developing countries will, in pursuing economic development and poverty eradication, take proactive measures to adapt to and mitigate climate change. 

Given its vast size and increasing influence on the international stage, China has become something of a chief negotiator for developing countries when discussing climate change. A key issue for the developing countries has been technology transfer. They maintain that it is unrealistic to expect poor, developing nations to incur the high costs of becoming a low-carbon economy. Instead they argue that nations with low-carbon technology should essentially gift this technology to the developing nations, thus ensuring emissions are reduced. Objections have been voiced by developed countries over the impact this would have on the companies responsible for researching and developing said technologies, and the issue has become another sticking point. A possible way around this problem would be the encouragement of co-development of future low carbon technologies. South Korea and Japan are keen to export this ‘green technology’ to China through government-sponsored programmes, and such measures were met with enthusiasm at recent tri-nation talks. However this issue is likely to become contentious once negotiations officially resume at the end of the year.

A Green China?

China recently overtook the US as the world’s single largest emitter of GHG which has captured the world’s attention and added to its image problem as a nation that is not willing to be part of the solution to climate change. However,  less well known or talked about are the steps that China has taken, of its own initiative, to combat climate change. China insists its primary domestic objectives are to alleviate poverty and to ensure sustainable development, but this has not stopped it from placing climate change high its own domestic agenda. The eleventh ‘five year guideline’ for economic development initiatives for the years 2006-10 outlined numerous environmental measures. These included the reduction of energy consumption per unit of GDP by 20 per cent, 10 per cent reduction of major pollutants, and an increase in forest coverage.

It is well publicised that China is heavily reliant on coal as the main source of energy in its power stations, and at present it is responsible for providing 70 per cent of China’s energy. As a result the Chinese have taken steps to increase the efficiency of their coal power stations in two key pieces of legislation in 2005 and 2007. The latter regards the construction of ‘ultra super-critical’ coal plants that would be able to achieve levels of efficiency of around 43 per cent, and comparable to the efficiency levels found in developed countries. The Chinese have also taken steps to take small and inefficient plants which mainly run on coal and oil offline.

The huge stimulus package was portioned out with this in mind, and some estimates suggest about 38 per cent of the package has been earmarked for ‘green’ projects and investments including the diversification of China’s energy provision to include wind and nuclear power. But of far greater concern to the average Chinese citizen is the pollution that they encounter on a day-to-day basis, be it air quality in Beijing or the local car or chemical plant poisoning water supplies. People are aware that an increase in GHG is an issue, but it is not a major priority to them, and so the Chinese government wants to keep pollution a domestic issue.

One major lure for China to accept a move towards binding emissions cuts is the potential for expansion of its already significant battery and electric car industry. The huge numbers of migrant labourers in China has allowed manufacturers to undercut their Japanese competitors in the field of battery production. If new measures are introduced by a deal in Copenhagen, then the electric car is sure to become an attractive approach to meeting emissions targets and China will be in prime position to benefit from this change in consumer tastes.

As the talks approach, the world will no doubt be holding its breath for a new treaty on climate change that is workable, fair, and most of all, binding. Failure to deliver will be seen as a huge breakdown in the fight against global warming. The weight of importance being placed on China in these negotiations is finally giving it the recognition it has long craved. But it remains to be seen is whether China can handle the responsibility of being an influential international power by accepting limits to its own growth.

Benjamin Knight
RUSI

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