Wednesday, March 25, 2009

China and the Copenhagen Climate Change Agreement

Over the past few days, I've been reading some of the back-and-forth and jockeying for position among the global players in preparation for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen later this year. From what I'm reading, a lot of people are hopeful that Copenhagen will provide a sustainable framework for growth over the coming century.

Seeing the beast of an emitter China has become, their participation and input into the agreement is vital.

They have a few items that they want to make clear before they agree on anything though.

One of the main points of contention that China makes is that a sizable amount of the pollution it emits is done so for the sake of Wal-Mart and its American consumers.

From Environmental Leader on March 18th:

Photo from Wired

Consumers in the United States, Europe and elsewhere should pay for carbon emissions spewed out by Chinese factories, or so says China’s top climate negotiator, according to The Guardian.

China’s position, laid out by Li Gao, could present a stumbling block for the Obama Administration in advance the next round of UN climate change talks, set for December in Copenhagen. Gao is on China’s powerful National Development and Reform Commission.

Most observers agree that for the international accord to have meaning, China and the United States have to come to an agreement. China in 2006 became the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, and it remains heavily reliant on coal.

“As one of the developing countries, we are at the low end of the production line for the global economy,” Li said. “We produce products and these products are consumed by other countries… This share of emissions should be taken by the consumers, not the producers.”

Li said up to 25% of China’s global warming emissions were the result of exports.

Read On
China's position here makes sense to me. If all of the factories that are producing the goods that American and Western consumers want, it seems reasonable that these emissions are the "responsibility" of the people who consume/demand the products. "Penalizing" China for these emissions doesn't seem fair if one thinks about it in this way.

This week, China pointed out another area it thinks is unfair.

From Reuters:

Photo of China's pollution from NASA

BEIJING (Reuters) - A top Chinese state think tank has proposed a global greenhouse gas trading plan to reflect the different historic emissions of rich and poor nations, indicating deepening discussion in Beijing about climate change policy.


The Beijing think tank's plan seeks a solution to the divide between developed nations, with high per capita accumulations of greenhouse gas emissions, and developing nations, including China, with low levels of per capita emissions that are set to rise in coming decades.

China's 1.3 billion people currently emit about 4 tons per person in greenhouse gases, compared with the United States at about 20 tons per person.

The answer, the think tank says, is to set emissions rights for each country, based on historic accumulation, and then let nations trade portions of those rights in an international market.


The plan says all countries should develop an "historic account" of past emissions. That account would be used to measure whether current emissions fall above or below appropriate levels calculated from population, accumulated emissions and total global reduction objectives.

Each country would then hold a national account projecting future annual emissions entitlements up to a set date -- the authors offer 2050 as an example. How countries keep emissions within agreed levels would then be left to governments to decide.

Read the Full Article
I also see the point that China is making here.

It doesn't seem just that the US and the wester hemisphere got to pollute the hell out of the world for a century and a half with no penalties whereas China, and the rest of the developing world, are going to be held to a high standard during their development.

It's true that the US' development took place in an era when we didn't know the ramifications of what it was doing to the planet. And of course China's development is taking place during a time period when emitting carbon-dioxide is believed to be the cause of global climate change. But there's no doubt that the United States is responsible for a vast majority of carbon-dioxide emissions in the past century.

While China has already overtaken the United States in term of emissions, if one looks at the history of the two countries, it is completely irrational to say China's recent boom in emissions are the main culprit for climate change. Surely China's development is adding to the problem, but a ton of damage had already been done before they started seriously emitting greenhouse gases.

If the developed western world takes the attitude that China "has to do as it says and not as it did," it will be treated by the Chinese as a flimsy argument.

Knowing what we know now, China should be held to a different standard. But whether that standard is the same as a developed nation should be questioned. Forcing China to abandon its massive coal resources while America depleted its reserves over the past century just doesn't seem fair to me.

I think about this point of "climate change responsibility" a lot. Everywhere I look in Xi'an there are traffic jams, massive smoke-sputtering busses, new buildings going up, etc. There are literally tons of greenhouse causing carbon-dioxide being put into the atmosphere every second here in China. It worries me to think that this country is just beginning to develop.

But then when I think about America and its suburban sprawl, car culture, Hummers (for Gods' sake), etc., I can't help but think that America and its decades-long history of this stuff is much more responsible for the climate crisis than China is. No matter how convenient a target China is.

Realizing how delicate the US/China relations on this issue are going to be on this issue, the American think-tank - The Brookings Institute - released a policy recommendation yesterday for both governments' leaders.

From The Brookings Institute:

Photo from The Guardian

Climate change is an epic threat. Concentrations of green-house gases in the atmosphere are higher than at any time in human history and rising sharply. Predicted consequences include sea-level rise, more severe storms, more intense droughts and floods, forest loss and the spread of tropical disease. Each of these phenomena is already occurring. Every year of delay in reducing greenhouse gas emissions puts the planet at greater risk.

The United States and China play central roles in global warming. During the past century, the United States emitted more greenhouse gases than any other country - a fact oten noted, since carbon dioxide, the leading greenhouse gas, remains in the atmosphere for roughly 100 years. However, in 2007, China may have surpassed the United States as the world's top annual emitter of carbon dioxide. Together, the two countries are responsible for over 40% of the greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere each year.

For the world to meet the challenge of global warming, the United States and China must each make the transition to a low-carbon economy. Far-reaching changes will be needed. To date, however, each nation has used the other as one reason not do to more. Enormous benefits would be possible if this dynamic were replaced with mutual understanding and joint efforts on a large scale.

Yet cooperation will not be easy. he U.S. and China are separated by different histories, different cultures, and different perspectives. Opportunities for collaboration in fighting climate change and promoting clean energy are plentiful, but moving forward at the scale needed will require high-level political support in two very diferent societies and systems that have considerable suspicion of the other. This report identifies major barriers to cooperation and recommends ways to overcome them.

Download the Full Report

This report is long. I have not read the whole thing. I like the tone of their abstracts and basic reccomendations though.

Climate change is something the world is going to have to come together to tackle. Demonizing other countries and their relative position in development is pointless. As an American living in China, I understand where both countries are on the issue.

I realize that this may sound hypocritical coming from an American based on what happened with the Kyoto Protocol, but I hope that the world can come to an effective agreement this winter.

The ability to find common ground and a framework for cutting down on carbon emissions and producing renewable energy is, in many respects, going to determine the fate of humanity.


Anonymous said...

What a ridiculous post.

Anonymous said...

I am a little more optimistic about the situation in US now that Obama is in the white house. At least he is not a global warming denier and is talking about fuel efficient cars (one of the biggest emission in US is from cars).

Like you, I think about the green house problem a lot. Living in California, I am glad that our state is trying to lead the nation as a green state. On the other hand, seeing so many SUV's on the streets is quite disheartening. This is California's paradox.

As for the emission in China, I totally agree that the people who buy the products should pay for the emission. However, I prefer a totally different approach that the Chinese have proposed.

My argument is this: since the emission should be paid by the people who buy the products, we should just add a carbon tax on each product and make it a global standard. Right now one of China's arguments is that it is the "factory of the world" so most of the products (therefore green house emission) is made for the western consumption so this emission should not be counted as China's.

But the reasons for the western countries to make everything in China is not just due to the cheap labor. It is also due to the lax environmental regulation, which will cut costs. In the meantime, to make the same product in China often it takes twice as much the energy (coal powered as well!)and 2 to 3 times of water as it would be made in a western country since China does not have the efficient technology.
This means by making everything in China, the whole population on earth is actually accelerating the rate of our natural resources being used up.

If one imposes taxes on the products sold to the west, it will 1)make it a more fair competition for the western and Chinese factories 2)with the tax money,help Chinese companies to develop more energy efficient production.

I do not like the trading of the CO2 since it does not make the people who actually have the high carbon footprints realize that they should cut back and is a collective punishment for even those who buy local and ride bikes to work.

Mark said...

Thanks for the comment, Meg.

Your thoughts on China's ineffient uses of energy in manufacturing are interesting. As is the point that the West uses China to make things because it has lax environmental standards.

This is a complicated issue. Your well-thought-out comment certainly indicates that you agree with me on this.