Deciphering China's Climate Change Strategery

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 9/23/2009 08:50:00 AM
Nobody was particularly surprised when Hu Jintao, leader of the country which now holds the dubious distinction of being the world's largest carbon emitter, offered no concrete commitments while addressing the United Nations on climate change:
China plans a “notable” cutback in the level of carbon dioxide its industries emit as part of international efforts to combat climate change, Hu Jintao, Chinese president, told a UN climate summit on Tuesday.

Despite raised expectations ahead of the summit, Mr Hu put no specific target on the reduction – which would be based on cutting carbon dioxide emissions per unit of gross domestic product - but said the policy would figure in his country’s next five-year plan. “We will endeavour to cut carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by a notable margin by 2020 from the 2005 level,” Mr Hu said.
It would be unfair to say that China doesn't care about climate change. At the same time, it is not giving any signals that it will be offering major concessions it can be held accountable to at the international level in terms of energy efficiency targets or the ever-contentious emissions caps. Like its fellow large LDC India, China would largely prefer it if it could go about improving this carbon emission business alone. Notably, a China Daily article reporting on Hu at the UN quotes a World Wildlife Fund (WWF) climate change representative saying Hu will give a specific number to "a notable margin" for the global public before the Copenhagen summit begins. It is an official publication's duty to make its overseers look good. Hopefully, it is also doubtful it would make suggestions that would make the leadership look bad if unfulfilled:
Yang Fuqiang, director of the global climate change solutions program at WWF, said China will intensify its domestic efforts to ensure it meets President Hu’s promise to cut carbon intensity by 2020. And Yang said the carbon intensity target is likely to be "quantified" before the Copenhagen climate summit. "To fulfill this commitment, the country will include the carbon intensity targets ... in its 12th and 13th Five-Year Plans (between 2010 and 2020)," said Yang.
Fortunately, there a number of documents that can help us with the task of determining China's climate change stance aside from public pronouncements such as Hu Jintao appearing before the UN. First is China's National Climate Change Programme by the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC). This selfsame body has also put out a more recent primer on China's Position on the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference dated 20 May 2009. While I cannot say I am overjoyed with the PRC's overall stance, I must concede that it is cannily crafted. Aside from being superficially plausible despite its evasiveness, it also ties climate change to other issues China is seeking to make headway on. Without further ado:

I. Portraying itself as a climate change victim, not an aggressor - there are echoes of China washing away its guilt over the global economic crisis by underplaying imbalances and citing lax US regulation in the subprime debacle. Here, the Chinese continually bring up this notion of what I have called "historical justice" or "intergenerational justice" for lack of a better term. The NDRC report on p. 58 states: "Climate change, the impacts of which have been felt all over the world, was mainly caused by the massive emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases originated from developed countries since industrial revolution."

I have always viewed this argument with suspicion. Not only do we know better now about the hazards of uncontrolled carbon emissions, but we also have more efficient production technologies now. China's reasoning is akin to arguing for the continued use of child labor as developed countries did so in the past. There is little point for China to behave as if not much social or technological progress has occurred since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. It is thus something of a non-sequitur for China to claim that its per capita carbon emissions are low compared to that of developed countries when the PRC approaching such figures would spell catastrophe. That is, there would be a lot fewer of us around to debate about climate change.

II. Hoping for technology transfer currently prohibited by "dual-use" concerns - the above discussion on technology brings us to a recurring favorite theme of China. The US has famously barred exports of technologies to China that it sees as being "dual-use" for both civilian and military purposes. In China's version of events, developed countries should not just drop these restrictions but provide developing countries with them for free or something close to it: "Developed countries providing measurable, reportable and verifiable technology, financing and capacity building support through technology transfer and financial mechanisms."

Accordingly, China is calling for a percentage of developed countries' GDPs to be devoted to technology transfer for pollution abatement. Given how little progress aid fundamentalists like Jeffrey Sachs have made on getting rich countries to loosen the purse strings, it is doubly unlikely that they would provide potentially sensitive technologies gratis and at a significant cost to them: "The developed country Parties shall make assessed contributions with a certain percentage of their annual GDP, e.g. 0.5-1%, to the above-mentioned Funds." These are unrealistic proposals, but more importantly, China knows they are unrealistic. Nevertheless, it is conceivable that China can wangle at least some concessions on technology transfer from starting with a purposefully outlandish demand.

III. Courting LDC support - in painting developed countries as the main contributors to global warming, the Chinese portray this as a North-South conflict wherein the former are answerable for a lot more than the latter. It is almost comical how night-and-day the differences are in the way China wants these countries to be treated. First comes a laundry list of obligations for developed countries:
Developed countries shall undertake measurable, reportable and verifiable legally-binding deeper quantified emission reduction commitments...Given their historical responsibility and development level and based on the principle of equality, developed countries shall reduce their GHG emissions in aggregate by at least 40% below their 1990 levels by 2020 and take corresponding policies, measures and actions.
Next come the LDCs who, like China, get away pretty much scot-free:
Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMAs) by developing countries shall be taken in the context of sustainable development and in line with the legitimate priority needs of developing countries for development and the eradication of poverty...

NAMAs by developing countries are distinct in nature from quantified emission reduction commitments by developed countries...NAMAs by developing countries are initiated by themselves, distinct from international legally-binding commitments of developed countries...NAMAs by developing countries are concrete mitigation policies, actions and projects, distinct from the quantified emission reduction commitments and targets by developed countries.
The Chinese have already begun decrying climate change penalties as protectionism; this is where the idea stems from as the PRC attempts to drum up sympathy from other LDCs.

IV. Killing off any multilaterally determined emissions limits for China - if true, China setting targets prior to Copenhagen for GDP per unit of energy use is welcome. Then again, the base from which China will set off from is very, very low. In a recent ADB report, it is even outdone on this measure by economic powerhouses Afghanistan and Pakistan. By disallowing others from giving input on China's climate change targets, it is more probable that cosmetic changes will occur rather than the more substantial ones we would like to come from the world's worst offender. Despite its many excuses, that is remains and will likely remain for a long, long time.

I am quite interested in climate change since I generally like the idea of actual humans living on a habitable planet. It is notable that even China recognizes climate change is occurring, though you'd like to see something more in the way of concerted action with other countries. That said, climate change is an even more complicated multilateral issue than others this blog more commonly covers such as trade, migration, and finance. Not only are the payoffs not likely to occur in the near future, but there are also substantial costs to be incurred in the meantime if measurable progress it to be made.