September 23, 2009

China and Per Capita Emissions

Nicholas Stern recently made waves by arguing that, while China as a country has a low level of per capita carbon emissions, the picture changes when you look at emissions at the provincial level:
[T]he British author of an acclaimed review on climate change told students in Beijing’s People’s University that 13 Chinese provinces, regions and cities had higher per capita emissions than France. Six also overtook Britain.

“There are many parts of China where emissions intensity and emissions per capita are looking much like some of the richer countries in Europe,” he said in a speech that laid out his predictions on global warming.
I had that in mind as I was reading the speeches that President Obama and President Hu Jintao of China gave at the UN climate change summit yesterday. While neither one gave many specifics about how their respective countries plan to address climate change, they were clearly staking opposite points on the question of developing countries and carbon emissions. Obama, while acknowledging that developed countries must take the lead on climate change, no doubt ruffled some Chinese feathers by including the PRC in that group.

Here's the key graf:
We must also energize our efforts to put other developing nations – especially the poorest and most vulnerable – on a path to sustainable growth. These nations do not have the same resources to combat climate change as countries like the United States or China do, but they have the most immediate stake in a solution. For these are the nations that are already living with the unfolding effects of a warming planet – famine and drought; disappearing coastal villages and the conflict that arises from scarce resources. Their future is no longer a choice between a growing economy and a cleaner planet, because their survival depends on both. It will do little good to alleviate poverty if you can no longer harvest your crops or find drinkable water.
Hu, for his part, reiterated the standard Chinese position of aggressively pursuing clean energy development and reducing energy intensity, while refusing to agree to mandatory reductions in carbon emissions. Once again, we see the Chinese appeal to common but differentiated responsibility in defining the terms of the climate debate -- with the implication that China rightfully belongs in the group of countries with fewer responsibilities.

Lord Stern's argument about per capita emissions in China, however, reminds us that a country-level perspective on responsibility for mitigating climate change may give an inaccurate picture of where things stand. That is, China wants to present itself as a developing country, free from obligations to reduce carbon emissions and deserving of aid from developed countries to develop cleaner sources of energy. But the parts of China that have been growing the most are the parts that now have per capita carbon emissions that match those of developed countries.

On the other hand, it's not clear how much value that insight has, at least as far as international negotiations on climate change are concerned. I actually wrote about sub-national climate change policies in grad school, and one thing I took away from that experience was that there's good reason sub-national political units (states, provinces, cities, etc.) are excluded from conducting foreign policy: Focusing on them tends to be a distraction. How far could the US get, say, by pointing out that parts of China have higher per capita emissions than Britain or France? Not very, I would think. There are currently multi-state climate agreements covering nearly half of the country, yet that doesn't get the US off the hook for developing a national climate change policy.

Ultimately, how one takes Lord Stern's argument depends on whether one favors a carrots approach or a sticks approach to dealing with China. The former will appreciate China's continued need for economic development, praise its fairly considerable efforts so far on developing a clean energy economy, and encourage it to move further in that direction; the latter will try to cajole China into taking more seriously its contribution to the climate crisis, and maybe even do something drastic, like impose a carbon tariff, to bring them into line. At the moment, I admit I find myself torn between the two approaches.

No comments:

Post a Comment