May 25, 2009

Is China Ready for a Climate Deal?

There’s been a lot of theatrics over Waxman-Markey in this country. But in a sense, it’s really a sideshow: If we don’t get the major developing countries — China in particular — to commit to reducing their carbon emissions, any effort to prevent catastrophic warming of the planet will be futile. That’s why negotiations between the US and China on reducing emissions are probably the most important thing shaping our planet’s future right now.

So what, exactly, is going on? Hard to say. The good news is, it seems China and the US are in talks about what to do about climate change, and that a mutual agreement to reduce emissions before the Copenhagen conference is a possibility. The bad news is, according to the Wall Street Journal, is that we may not want to hear what Beijing has to say:
China just upped the ante in its demands of what the West should do—calling for ridiculously ambitious emissions reductions over the next decade as a pre-condition for joining the club. The Waxman-Markey bill in its original form would have fallen well short of Chinese demands; in the compromise version, near-term emissions cuts are even more modest.
Specifically, China is asking for developed countries to reduce carbon emissions by 40% below 1990 levels by 2020. To put that in perspective, the European Union has pledged to reduce their emissions by 20% in that time frame, and 30% if the rest of the developed world joins them. And Waxman-Markey? Well, according to the World Resources Institute, the cap-and-trade system would only reduce US emissions by one percent. Even if you add in the other provisions of the bill, it would bump the level of reductions up to 23 percent, at best.

So why is China making such a demand? To begin with, look at the phrasing in their press release:
A shared vision for long-term cooperative action is to enable the full, effective and sustained implementation of the UNFCCC [United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change] to achieve its ultimate objective. Such a vision should be guided by the ultimate objective of the UNFCCC and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and the principle of equity. Since the UNFCCC has clearly defined the ultimate objective to address climate change, the overriding task for the international community is to implement concrete actions. The goal for long-term cooperative action should be a comprehensive one, consisting of sustainable development, mitigation, adaptation, financing and technology. In terms of mitigation, developed countries as a whole shall, as their mid-term targets, reduce their GHG emissions by at least 40% below their 1990 level by 2020.
That phrase, "common but differentiated responsibilities," is the linchpin to both the argument that the developed world should make drastic cuts in their emissions and that developing countries, including China, should not be legally bound to make any reductions at all. Basically, while all countries have a responsibility to protect the environment, developed countries — in view of their much greater wealth and that much of their wealth was gained through exploitation of developing countries’ resources — should do more to halt environmental degradation than the rest. This is especially the case with climate change, as the carbon emissions of Western countries over the last century are to blame for most of the warming that this planet has experienced to date. It is, of course, incredible to think that developing countries should place constraints on their fossil fuel consumption when developed countries won’t do the same; moreover, given that developing countries are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change, it stands to reason that developed countries should do what they can to prevent undue harm as a result. This includes not only cutting their own carbon emissions to avoid devastating levels of warming, but also financial assistance to developing countries to both develop clean sources of energy and adapt as much as possible to that climate change which is unavoidable at this point.

Now, it would be one thing for, say, Vietnam to make this argument; it’s a poor country, at risk of losing much of their farmland to global warming-induced sea level rise, and should not be denied the chance to develop their economy because of the actions of Westerners. But the argument begins to fall apart when applied to an economic behemoth like China, which, frankly, is now as much as part of the climate problem as the West. True, on a per capita basis, the Chinese are still fairly poor, on par with Albanians, but at some point it makes no sense to group all developing countries under the same rubric. Unfortunately, the international climate regime still only divides the world into developing and developed countries; creating a third category for prosperous, but still developing, countries, with a level of responsibilities in between those of the poorest and the richest countries, would bring things more into line with reality.

That said, the US needs to do more than what is proposed under Waxman-Markey; although, as mentioned above, the whole bill would result in roughly the same carbon emissions reductions as what the EU has promised. And indeed, the EU needs as much prodding on this matter as we do. By the same token, however, so do the Chinese.

#2 The Great Wall of China originally uploaded to Flickr by emms76.

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