Typing Aloud About China's Climate

Many are reporting that the Chinese represented the most serious stumbling block inhibiting meaningful progress in Copenhagen.

Should we conclude that China's at fault for the world's failures to move forward?

Are the Chinese against action on climate change?

Is the Chinese leadership simply a roadblock to progress?

These are important questions to understand and consider as we strive to determine paths forward toward a prosperous, climate-friendly future.

"China is at fault ..."

if there's a party to blame, it's China. It's China that was off meeting with India and Brazil, trying to avoid getting ensnared in any commitments at all, forcing Obama to track them down. It was China that refused to sign off on the target of 50% global reductions by 2050. It was China that forced rich countries not to commit to 80% reductions by 2050, lest it some day have to live up to that target. (Yes, China forced rich countries to trim their ambitions. "Ridiculous," said Merkel.) It was China who, up until the very last minute, refused to agree to any international verification at all ...

It's China, in short, that was unwilling to sign onto anything but the most bare-bones framework.

Watching 'from a distance,' this is a summation of a growing impression re: the PRC position in international climate negotiations.

'Chinese are against action ...'

China "systematically wrecked" the Copenhagen climate summit because it feared being presented with a legally binding target to cut the country's soaring carbon emissions [according to] a senior official from an EU country, present during the negotiations ... [A]ccusations ... of obstructive Chinese behaviour, reflected widespread anger among many delegations about the nation's actions at the conference.

The very thoughtful Lou Grinzo concluded:

Right before our eyes we have the development of the biggest example one could imagine of the free rider problem. If the other major emitters and potentially high emitters do the right thing and curb their CO2 pollution significantly, it will only make it easier for China to do whatever it wants. The rest of the world will leave more of our global remaining CO2 budget for China, and they will continue using vast amounts of cheap coal, burned in filthy, old-tech plants, to lower their costs so they can continue to be a low-cost producer of many products they export.

Chinese leadership a roadblock to progress

The title of Mark Lynas' Guardian op-ed makes his perspective clear: How do I know China wrecked the Copenhagen deal? I was in the room

Copenhagen was a disaster. ... The truth is this: China wrecked the talks, intentionally humiliated Barack Obama, and insisted on an awful "deal" so western leaders would walk away carrying the blame.

What I saw was profoundly shocking. The Chinese premier, Wen Jinbao, did not deign to attend the meetings personally, instead sending a second-tier official in the country's foreign ministry to sit opposite Obama himself. The diplomatic snub was obvious and brutal, as was the practical implication ...

China knows it is becoming an uncontested superpower; indeed its newfound muscular confidence was on striking display in Copenhagen. Its coal-based economy doubles every decade, and its power increases commensurately. Its leadership will not alter this magic formula unless they absolutely have to.

Stepping back to consider the issue ...

Without a doubt, there is truth (and substance) to all of the above, but let's take a step back to consider the PRC's approach from a different angle.

The Chinese Leadership
  • doesn't suffer from rabid anti-science syndrome conditions, thus listens to their technical experts -- including their climate scientists
  • structure & Chinese cultural heritage are able to plan for the very long term
  • is growing increasingly convinced that climate change represents a serious threat to their nation
  • is increasingly concerned over fossil-fuel (oil and higher-quality coal) import dependencies, thus increasingly
  • is focusing national investment re clean energy options
  • wants to see serious global action re: climate change mitigation
  • seeking to maximize advantage to PRC through this whole process
Thus, the Chinese are acting to mitigate climate change (their clean energy investments, increasing focus on energy efficiency, etc ...) but they are (in quite realist terms) seeking to get every possible penny (whether US pennies, or the more valuable Euro version) they can get from other nations to gain advantage for the PRC over the long term.

Thus, the Chinese will play every single negotiation to the brink, giving away the absolute minimum they see as necessary, even as they are moving their own nation on a 'clean energy technology' path forward.

Thus, perhaps the reality is that the Chinese are negotiating, hard, for every advantage ... even while turning their economy on a path toward dominance (victory?) in the clean energy revolution.

Two asides ...

Some of the best commentary on this comes from koNko. In particular, I would recommend this discussion

... The accusation that Chinese were purposely trying to subvert the talks, make Mr. Obama look bad or use him as a scapegoat is frankly ridiculous. ... To suggest that China was obstructionist is to suggest they were unwilling to make compromises. ...

That they were unwilling to compromise on certian key points in the absence of substatial agreements including commitments from developed nations suggests something else: that China is not foolish to cave into demands by developed nations when recipricol compromises were not in the offer and obviously no firm agreements could be made.

As noted, I would strongly recommend reading the full comment which ended with this telling graphic about per capita carbon emissions:

Note that setting the globe on a path toward 350 ppm would require per capita emissions in the 2.0 to 2.5 tons range.

China ... Chinese ... China Leadership ... Chinese Interest Groups ...

The simple collective singular is far easier when thinking about, discussing the "other." "The United States believes ..." ... "The Jews think that ..." "The Chinese feel ..." While we can speak seriously of the nature and conduct of an official delegation (Lynas' claims about Copenhagen, for example), we have a real peril in that collective term "The Chinese ..." While they might not have their Jim Inhofe in a place of power, there are certainly a wide range of 'interest groups' within the Chinese government and society from factory owners, mining interests, coal-fired electricity interests, scientific institutions studying climate change, clean-energy entrepreneurs, with varying stakes in the game and efforts to drive direction. And, while far more autocratic than the United States, the reality is that a central government dictate is necessarily fully implemented across the nation without question and without undermining. There are regional vs. central government issues as well. And, increasingly, there are civil society groups attempting to impact society and governance (such as Greenpeace China, et al ...) And ...

At the moment, I am reading Bryan Tilt's just-published The Struggle for Sustainability in Rural China. Tilt is an ethnographer who spent a number of years in Futian, a rural community in Sichuan, doing "research on economic development and environmental degradation in the Chinese countryside". Tilt provides a far more complex picture (a far more complex reality) than simply "The Chinese ..."

In addition, fueling the confusion or difficulty for most "Westerners" looking toward China is a reality of a variety of cultural and other divides. Ask an average American (okay, "average" could be a problem. How about college-educated?) to name 10 European cities and describe them in some manner and you could get discussions of Rome & the Coliseum, Paris & Notre Dame, London and Trafalgar Square, Greece & the Parthenon, Berlin & the Berlin Wall, etc ... Try to elicit the same about the PRC and does anyone think that there would, writ large across American (or, well, European society of US vs China) society, be an equal level of detail and understanding?

What might this suggest for European and US policy?

If the above points are, at their core, correct, the best path for the United States (and others) might be to set out on a serious 'arms race': to arm ourselves (whether looking at this from EU or US or, well, Chinese perspective) to the greatest advantage with clean energy technology -- which includes, of course, not just energy R&D funding, but serious commitments to the deployment of clean energy and energy efficiency throughout the economy. (Clean Energy Jobs anyone?)

If the United States, European Union (French carbon tax starts 1 January on top of Europe's Cap & Trade), Japan, and others are prepared (a big question, at least when it comes to the US) to put a price on carbon while some economies aren't, then perhaps it is time for a Global Warming Impact Fee which could help compel others to take that step while protecting national economies in a fair and justifiable way.

Right now, China is committing ever more resources to seeking advantage in solar, wind, and other clean energy arenas. They look to realize that the real path to future wealth is to leap frog past polluting energy into a clean energy future. If their investments continue without matching (or larger) investments in Europe and the United States, the "Old World" and the "New World" will be beholden to China for key elements of our economies. A question to ask: does that scenario bode well for the future prospects for Old World and/or New World prosperity?

This suggests that future climate change negotiations and the prospects for mitigation of climate change would be best served by serious (crash) programs on both sides of the Atlantic to develop and deploy a broad range of clean energy systems.