I want to write about China, but let me first take a moment to note that the leaders of the entire world are coming together, in the snow, to tackle a global threat. Yes, it’s chaotic and disappointing so far, but that such a gathering is taking place at all is somewhat amazing and hopeful.
The more each of us recognizes that we are world citizens as well as citizens of our nations, tribes, religions, etc, the better able we will be to find solutions to our common problems. If global warming has a silver lining, other than for Canadian farmers, it is that it encourages us to think in planetary terms.
Onto China. China has a lot of good reasons to demand all it can from the developed world at the Copenhagen summit. And the developed world needs to own up to its responsibility for past and current emission sins.
The U.S. has a long way to go to meet its own obligations, and we need to make up for the last eight years of irresponsible inaction. But the future of global warming belongs in large part to China.
The U.S. negotiator, Todd Stern, pointed out earlier in the summit that almost all the growth in emissions from now until 2030 will come from the developing world, half from China alone. At the end of the day, as a pivotal power, China has to be willing to sacrifice for the global common good.
In a recent report, I concluded that it is still rare for China to act proactively to solve global problems. But it has happened, as in the case of North Korea’s nuclear program — and on pandemics.
When it comes to global warming, with the international spotlight shining brightly, China did pledge to cut the amount of carbon dioxide emitted for each unit of its gross domestic product by 40 to 45 percent by 2020, compared with 2005 levels. That was a significant development, though not ambitious enough, according to many.
Now the sticking point seems to be “MRV.” China is refusing to have its targets be “measurable, reportable and verifiable.” Without that provision, other countries, most notably the U.S., will not know whether China is sticking to its commitment or not. China’s point of view is that the burden should be on the West to do more, not on them.
So what are China’s reasons for holding firm against developed world demands that they do more in a treaty on global warming?
- It’s the economy (and demography). The imperative to grow the Chinese economy, and safely manage its estimated 24 million unemployed (and thus hold onto political power) is an immediate mandate, requiring great energy resources, whereas the threat of global warming is more distant and will evolve more gradually. Moreover, the Chinese population is aging rapidly and could peak as early as 2020, which means that by 2035, China will be carrying an enormous elderly population. There is great pressure on China’s leaders to develop and grow the economy as quickly as possible.
- Equity. The Chinese argue that the West grew rich spewing carbon and that it is unfair to demand costly limitations from them at this stage in their development. Deborah Seligsohn explains: “Chinese scratch their heads. They know they live in tiny apartments, turn off all lights, wear three layers of clothing indoors in the winter, and only run the air conditioner on the hottest days. Then these Americans come to town on jets, blast the air conditioning and lecture them about their energy use.” The Chinese also argue that when Western nations import industrial and manufactured products en masse from China rather than producing them domestically, they effectively outsource their carbon emissions to China.
- Skepticism. The American Clean Energy and Security Act that passed in the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this year falls far short of where China thinks developed economies need to be. The Chinese are also skeptical about whether the United States will ultimately make it law and then implement it in a rigorous way. They also point out that the bill uses “offsets,” or credits for carbon that was not released but otherwise would have been, which China thinks is a politically expedient provision that could act as a major loophole.
- Suspicion. The belief that American demands for carbon reductions are motivated not by concern for the planet but by a desire to limit China’s growth and keep it weak continues to find some currency in China.
- Performance anxiety. China has set ambitious domestic targets for itself, as noted above. Yet the Chinese don’t want to commit to them internationally because they want to be able to outperform whatever they promise. They have a strong political incentive to exceed all targets. Beijing is also concerned that if they don’t make the targets, they won’t get credit for trying.
- Lagging self-perception. As it has happened so quickly, some Chinese leaders have not come to terms with the size of China’s impact. “It was like squeezing blood from a stone,” explains a senior U.N. official, requesting anonymity, “to even get the Chinese to realize even implicitly, let alone explicitly that they are now the world’s largest emitter.”
- Uncertainty. Climate targets being considered by the international community reach out to 2050. But China is likely to change between now and then in ways difficult to predict. The level of uncertainty is substantially higher than in most countries in the developing world and may contribute to a reluctance to commit internationally to long-term goals.
- Tactics. China may still be waiting to make its big move so it can “save the day.”
- Beijing’s limited leverage. While Beijing elites may prefer a more environmentally balanced growth structure, they sometimes can exert little control over provincial politicians who favor GDP growth at any cost.
- Wanting to keep its coalition together. China does not want to take actions that will separate it from its developing country caucus. China has worked hard to build relations with the developing world and does not want to be seen abandoning them but rather defending their interests in international arenas.
As I said, these are compelling reasons for trying to get the best deal possible. But they are not good enough to scuttle the possibility of a treaty that will help forestall the devastation a heating planet will visit on China, and every other part of the world.
I want to be hopeful and, generally, when heads of state show up, if things are going to happen, they happen. But in this case the divisions seem very deep.
And as much as the symbolism of more than 100 heads of state coming together is exciting, I worry they will bog down negotiations as much as help them. Still, here’s hoping China doesn’t want to pass up an excellent opportunity to look like the world’s savior.
– Nina Hachigian