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Is China “the” problem?

August 30th, 2009 · No Comments

This is a guest post from Kate Horner, international climate and energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth, taking a look at the oft-used line “China pollutes more than the U.S.” and “if we act, it will give China an advantage” and … Well, go ahead and read it …

International negotiators are in Germany this week, desperate to achieve progress toward the strong global climate change agreement that’s supposed to be finalized in Copenhagen in December. But instead of leading the world in forging such an agreement, the United States is standing in the way.

A big reason for this — the reason President Obama won’t direct his negotiators to do what’s needed — is the domestic political opposition that a strong treaty faces. And a key argument being used by many Republicans and a fair number of Democrats to oppose such a treaty (and strong clean energy legislation at home) is that the U.S. shouldn’t commit to serious emissions reductions unless China and other developed countries do so too. This is a lazy, xenophobic argument, and it needs to be knocked down.

We’re four short months from the scheduled negotiations in Copenhagen. A failure to reach an agreement there that radically changes the way we use energy will have stark consequences. Without a strong agreement, atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations will likely pass tipping points. As a result, we could lock in runaway warming, with consequences for humans that include severe water shortages, famines, massive sea level rises, increases in infectious diseases, and at best, a dramatic reduction in quality of life. At worst, we could see a collapse of civilization.

Mohammed Nasheed, the President of the Maldives Islands (which could end up underwater), put it this way: “Copenhagen can be one of two things … an historic agreement event where the world unites against carbon pollution … Or, Copenhagen can be a suicide pact. The choice is that stark.”

Unfortunately, the “historic agreement” of which Nasheed speaks currently seems out of reach. A big sticking point is the role that should be played by large developing nations, especially China. It’s hard to have missed the fact that China now fronts the pack of the world’s largest emitters. But China climate hysteria isn’t warranted.

Despite many U.S. politicians’ finger pointing, China has arguably outpaced us in fighting rising emissions. China has implemented aggressive fuel economy standards, passed a renewable electricity standard of 15 percent by 2020, mandated a 20 percent reduction in national energy intensity by 2010, and put in place important energy efficiency and green procurement standards. Last week, Yu Qingtai, China’s top climate diplomat, said China is eager to do even more.

China, though, like other less affluent nations, has a legitimate need for economic development.  While China’s advanced industrial manufacturing sector is growing, the country has one of the most bifurcated economies in the world. Millions of Chinese still live in abject poverty. And per capita emissions in China are less than one fifth those of the United States.

Developed countries are home to less than one fifth of the world’s population, but as they have industrialized and grown wealthy, the have emitted almost three quarters of the world’s historic greenhouse gas emissions.  Rich countries including the U.S., which industrialized using cheap, dirty energy, now enjoy the spoils of that past pollution –including roads, electricity, hospitals, and schools. It’s immoral to argue that people in China — or anywhere else — shouldn’t also be afforded access to such basic benefits of development.

The question, then, is how to delink the right to develop from the need to increase greenhouse gas emissions. Yu Qingtai says access to technology and shared research, development and deployment arrangements will be key for China. The greater the ability of developing countries to afford and make use of climate-friendly technologies, the more likely it is that they can grow their economies without a corresponding surge in emissions. But the U.S. isn’t ponying up on its obligation to help fund the spread of clean technology (such funding is required by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which the U.S. has ratified). The U.S. also maintains that corporations should be allowed to keep a stranglehold on patents (recall the AIDS pandemic and the intransigence of pharmaceutical corporations, anyone?).

In Bali, Indonesia, in December of 2007, international negotiators agreed on a roadmap to do the seemingly impossible — to get both the U.S. and developing countries, specifically China and India, on board a global climate agreement. The roadmap was palatable to the U.S. because it would require China to act (but not take on binding emissions reduction targets) and was agreeable to the developing world because it would require developed countries to live up to previous agreements and provide developing countries with technology and financial resources to address climate change.

China and many other developing countries have had their act together for well over a year and have tried diligently, though unsuccessfully, to follow the roadmap and move the negotiations forward by coming up with technology and finance proposals. The European Union, the U.S., Japan and the rest of the developed world on the other hand have dragged their feet in almost every way, failing to meet their own, self-imposed deadlines to commit to emissions reductions.

None of this should be read as letting China off the hook. Environmental problems abound in China, and if it doesn’t make real reforms, it will face continued and growing social unrest.  Indeed, petitions and mass public protests in China related to environmental issues increased 30 percent in 2006 according to Chinese government figures. And there’s no question China is a major emitter of heat-trapping gases. But let’s get the facts straight and recognize where chief responsibility for the hundreds-of-years-in-the-making climate crisis actually lies: with the wealthy, developed countries that are responsible for the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions now in our atmosphere — and the people in these countries who continue to produce far more global warming pollution on a per capita basis than people elsewhere.

So, given the current divide between developed and developing countries, how can a global agreement possibly be reached by negotiators by the time they arrive in Copenhagen in December?

Well, for a start, developed countries — especially the U.S. — need to dramatically change course and demonstrate even a sliver of the political leadership we’ve been promised. And yes, that responsibility lies on heads of state and delegations from those countries. But it also lies on the rest of us who live in these countries. We need to create political pressure that moves our leaders to do the right thing, and a broader political context in which they can do so without committing political suicide.

One piece of this is confronting China fear mongering head on and doing some truth-telling when the “well China isn’t committing to targets” finger waggling begins. We need to tell our leaders it’s time to get our own act together before criticizing other nations that have polluted far less. Developing countries have demonstrated their willingness to meet us halfway so we can arrive at a workable international agreement. It’s time for the wealthier rest of us to do our fair share. Let’s stop looking for scapegoats and start reducing our own emissions and living up to our international obligations. That, or we’re cooked.

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Tags: China · climate change · climate legislation · Energy · Global Warming