Chinas argument du jour for finishing off a livable climate

The United States has been the primary obstacle to saving a livable climate for a long while now. And that has given cover to countries — most notably China — that also wanted to ramp up emissions unfettered by any restrictions or the world’s moral condemnation. No one expected China to build coal plants at a rate that would more than double their CO2 emissions in the past several years. But they have, putting the world on an emissions trajectory worse than even the most pessimistic IPCC scenario, one reason M.I.T. doubled its projection of global warming by 2100 to 5.1°C, which would be the end of life as we know it on this planet (see impacts here).

Now as this country appears poised to take serious action, China has announced plans to keep expanding coal use at a pace so rapacious it would single-handedly finish off the climate no matter what we and the other rich countries do. This forces the Chinese to construct ever more elaborate arguments to defend their ever more indefensible actions (much as Bush did for most of his presidency). I have been intending to blog on China’s latest excuse for doing nothing. But instead, we are fortunate to have analysis from a guest blogger with far more first-hand knowledge about the Chinese: Charlie McElwee, an international energy & environmental lawyer and Professor at Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s School of Law who writes the blog China Environmental Law where this post first appeared.

China’s public pronouncements on its Copenhagen position are becoming increasingly clumsy and shrill. I suspect that the Obama victory, the speed with which his administration has moved to engage China on climate change issues, the unified position of the US and Annex 1 countries that China needs to do more, and the crumbling of the unified front initially maintained by the “developing” countries, has caught China flat footed.

In an effort to stave off any kind of binding commitments, it has been forced to play a hastily cobbled together defense which has consisted of throwing up an array of increasingly unpersuasive and contradictory arguments in the hope that one or two may stick.

The latest such defense was advanced by Li Gao, China’s chief climate negotiator, who is in Washington to hold talks with the Obama’s administration.

In widely reported remarks, he argued that the carbon produced by China as a result of making products for export, should be credited to the importing nation and not carried on China’s books. As we’ve noted before, this argument is not unreasonable, but is patently unworkable and inconsistent with the way in which emissions have been allocated in the past according to international agreement. It would require a complex analysis of world trading patterns in order to be implemented, which (even if agreement were made today to change the emission accounting formula) could not possibly be completed in time for Copenhagen.

Li’s remarks met immediate skepticism, with other negotiators saying it would be a logistical nightmare to find a way to regulate carbon emissions at exports’ destination.

Asking importers to handle emissions “would mean that we would also like them to have jurisdiction and legislative powers in order to control and limit those,” top EU climate negotiator Artur Runge-Metzger said.

“I’m not sure whether my Chinese colleague would agree on that particular point,” he said.

If China were serious about its argument–that importers should bear the cost of emissions generated abroad– it should support an import tax (or impose an export tax) to place the cost of carbon emissions on importers and the ultimate consumers of the product. But, here’s where China’s use of this “defense” becomes suspect. Reportedly,

Li also criticized proposals by the U.S. to place carbon tariffs on goods imported from countries that do not limit the gases blamed for global warming.

“If developed countries set a barrier in the name of climate change for trade, I think it is a disaster,” Li said.

Ah I see, China’s argument has a catch: developed countries should be charged with both their domestic (non-exported) carbon production and the carbon production associated with their imports, but they should be required to enact all reduction goals on the back of their domestic industries. Developing country exporters should be permitted to continue their exports unencumbered with carbon emissions costs. That’s a patent non-starter, of course, and the fact that China is even proposing it highlights the clumsy feel of its current climate change negotiating posture.

There are signs that the US and the EU (as evidenced by the above quotes from Runge-Metzger) are becoming frustrated:

China’s chief climate official, Xie Zhenhua, was also in Washington where he met with US global warming pointman Todd Stern, who praised Beijing’s “broad work” on climate change but sought greater cooperation.

China has many very persuasive arguments as to why it should not be in the same boat with developed nations; perhaps it is making these arguments privately. It’s beginning to lose its poise in the public arena (Li during the same press opportunity took a snide swipe at Japan’s climate negotiator), however, and is not aiding its cause. It should start to float proposals for interim limits (which may only be reductions in “business as usual” emissions as opposed to hard and fast caps), if it wants to be a responsible player in the achievement of a successful agreement or initial framework at Copenhagen. The problem may be that there is no consensus yet within the Chinese leadership as to what these “interim limits” should look like. If that’s the case, it should move swiftly to achieve internal agreement. Time is running out.

— Charlie McElwe

[JR: The unfortunate fact of life in this century millennium is that while the rich countries are responsible for the vast majority of cumulative greenhouse gas emissions and must reduce their emissions some 85% or more by mid-century, China’s rapid emissions growth coupled with our new understanding of climate science, means that preserving a livable climate will require China to cap its CO2 emissions by 2015-2020 — and not at double current levels. They cannot be forced to do so, of course, but if their leaders don’t understand — or can’t be made to understand — that the Chinese will suffer more than most from failing to do so, then the climate problem can’t be solved.]

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30 Responses to Chinas argument du jour for finishing off a livable climate

  1. jorleh says:

    Well done, is there somebody who believes that China is going to be green? What about USA, EU, Canada? Alberta oil sands, drill – baby – drill, your GOP?

    Is there one example in the world that somebody or some country has done something radically green? 1 or 2 % down with emissions?

    China is going to burn its coal every bit, even making its oil demand out of coal. Like USA taking it`s oil from Alberta oil sands.

  2. John McCormick says:

    China does not have the internal wealth to survive the long-term global temperature increase certain to change perciptation patterns in south Asia and melt the remaining glaciers in the Himalayas. The Chinese know this and the chaos that follows meltback of the glaciers will doom its people and economy.

    The US must negotiate a bi-lateral agreement with China as if the objective was nuclear weapons disarmament between our two countries.

    Public displays of political grandstanding in Copenhagen will not bring about a mutual China-US agreement. Only deliberate negotiations, off stage, can achieve a crack in the climate wall that will eventually tumble as China and the US agree – just as in our joined-at-the-hip economic interests – we cannot fail each other because we share the key to the weapon of mutual destruction — unregulated carbon emissions.

    John McCormick

  3. Reply says:

    I applaud this rational analysis of China’s impact on the rest of the world. For many centuries China has been inward looking and isolationist, labeling concerned “gai-jin” as meddlers. It is time for China to look past its boarders and realize the impact it has on the rest of the world.

    Sure, many western countries have had dirty, oily pasts, but it is now time to face the facts of climate change. The United States has turned 180 degrees since the last administration on climate, the EU and Australia have set renewable standards, and created Carbon Markets.

    Adversely, China has continued on its path towards dirty energy development and environmental destruction. A ship cannot sail when it’s anchor is deployed. So China shall remain: stuck firmly in its commitments while the world struggles compensate.

    In the past China has seen the value of renewable energy. With the rapid losses of its economy, we can only hope that Chinese leadership will see the wisdom in the “Green Recovery” now followed by the United States Government.

  4. DB says:

    Speaking of China and Copenhagen, I suppose one should also bring up India. From the Times of India:

    Govt says won’t bow to West on emission cuts

    With the global economic slowdown dimming the developed world’s appetite for accepting enhanced climate change responsibilities, India is preparing a robust defence of its position that it would not accept any sort of emission cut targets as part of a multilateral commitment.

  5. danl says:

    I suppose someone more aware of the Copenhagen talks can comment on this:

    Why would China ever cap its emissions if it receives billions of dollars of offsets under the Clean Development mechanism? The notion that China is a “developing country” has led us to invest in so-called technology transfer in the name of emissions reductions. Simply Follow the money.

    Also, has anyone proposed excluding China from the CDM? Or restructuring it to remove “additionality” from the offsets? That, I feel, may be the only way to push them towards more responsibility, instead of the dubious CDM offsets to reduce their emissions.

  6. Harrier says:

    I have to think that, eventually, China would be forced to change its tune as it’s hit with the effects of climate change. Every nation will. But the sense I get is that by then it would be too late.

  7. Sasparilla says:

    Harrier, you are correct.

    I thought China would be more ammendable than this – its a bit frightening to see this. Our technology to replace carbon based energy production works very well, but our politics to actually make it happen works alot less well.

  8. crf says:

    Obama is really making sense on climate.

    He’s clear on the fact emissions need to be reduced, and advocates a hard cap.
    He’s made clear that tariffs are a means of fairly pricing carbon emissions attached to traded products, so that one country or industry is not advantaged over the other.

    I hope that Obama will properly insist on legitimising tariffs as a means to avoid free carbon dumping in traded goods, either as part of a treaty to be negotiated in Copenhagen, or later under the WTO. And threaten that if no agreement on tariffs are reached, the US could impose them unilaterally after some grace period.

    If China, India and Brazil (and other developing exporting nations) see tariffs as too heavy a stick, Obama could offer valuable technology sharing agreements and promise to underwrite and subsidise in developing countries more advanced western environmental and power generation technology (such as nuclear plants, gas plants, solar and wind technology and even “clean coal”).

  9. Jeff R. says:

    I think that Mr. Li’s arguments are actually quite helpful in calling attention to the problem of leakage. Bring it on Mr. Li! He is right that a significant portion of Chinese emissions are attributable to Western consumption. And this fact will withstand challenge while his argument that Western consuming nations should not tax or regulate those emissions in the absence of Chinese regulation will not.

  10. DB says:

    “I thought China would be more ammendable than this – its a bit frightening to see this. Our technology to replace carbon based energy production works very well, but our politics to actually make it happen works alot less well.”

    China sees coal as quick, cheap, domestic (lowers national security concerns) reliable and well understood. That’s a lot of benefit for them to offset.

  11. Harrier says:

    But what about the warnings of Chinese climate scientists? If even a handful of those are reaching the top leadership it must be giving them some pause. If they continue to use coal at such a heavy rate they’ll complete their journey to superpower status but doom the planet in the process. They’ll be top dogs on a ruined ash heap. And they won’t even get more than a few decades out of it before their own country becomes unlivable. They won’t be able to enjoy the long period of global dominance that the U.S. had because it literally will not be possible.

    Avoiding a climate disaster is in their long term strategic interests.

  12. ids says:

    The best course U.S. should take now is focus on U.S. policy and showing strong leadership with real meanignful action, which is absent in Washington and recognized as such in China. Reducing reliance on coal and oil has real benefits beside climate change implications.

    Projecting U.S.’s own self-destructive tendencies on other nations simply blurs our view of them and our objectivity, and does not allow for human relationships based on reality.

  13. Craig says:

    So what are we going to do about this? Probably nothing!

    The current leaders of China seem to view rapid economic growth as the most effective means of preventing social upheaval and revolution. Staying in power today is their first priority. That short term thinking will prevail over all else. We won’t be able to shame them into compliance. We won’t change their reality by setting a good example. Cutting their products off from our markets will only increase the pressure to produce economic growth from other outlets. It is very unlikely that we could forcibly restrain them from burning coal. If I was going to bet, I’d bet on soaring CO2 emissions from them. In that case, as JR states:

    “…. the climate problem can’t be solved.”

  14. Reply says:

    “Bring it on Mr. Li! He is right that a significant portion of Chinese emissions are attributable to Western consumption.”

    Does that make it the west’s fault for production? No, goods are produced in China due to cheap capital. The capital is cheap because of the artificial price of the Chinese Yuan (RMB). Thus, the emissions in China are a result of Chinese greed.

    “He’s made clear that tariffs are a means of fairly pricing carbon emissions attached to traded products, so that one country or industry is not advantaged over the other.”

    Tariffs are illegal and will never make it through the Senate. It is purely rhetoric.

  15. crf says:

    Reply, you are wrong that tariffs are illegal.

    Tariffs are perfectly legal, they simply have consequences.

  16. Aaron d says:

    I fail to see the grounds with which China thinks that emissions from exported goods should be the responsibility of the importing nation. China is still paid for those goods. They still receive the capital from those products. Its not like they’re producing any of this stuff because they HAVE to. Its because it makes them money. I don’t think you’d ever see the chinese willing to pay the emissions for the Fords or Chevys they import (though I know probably a drop in the bucket in comparison to our imports from china).

  17. Harrier says:

    Here’s something I’ve been pondering: China likes to regularly try its hand at cloud-seeding to create rain. If they don’t want to cut their greenhouse gas emissions, but they’re destined to feel the heat of climate change, wouldn’t that suggest that they’ll be trying their hand at geoengineering in the near future?

    It seems like a natural progression from their attempts to create artificial weather.

  18. Tim says:

    @ jorleh. Check Sweden out.
    The Scandos are model global citizens these days in a lot of regards.
    Good social systems and enviro smarts.

    Sweden’s carbon dioxide tax regime has seen a drop in emmissions whilst increase in GDP of 44%…not sure on numbers or point of references, think I read it on CP somewhere…might be something like 11% drop on 1990 emmissions, with 44% GDP growth (since 2000?)

    Someone can calrify this I am sure.


  19. Robert T says:

    As someone who is neither Chinese or a US citizen I find both the post and the comments very one sided. You are all very ready to critisise China and let the US off the hook. Lets look at the facts:

    US per-capita emissions about 5.3 times higher than China

    US CO2 the highest in the world and rising

    The way I see it, either you guys slim down to 3.7 tonnes/yr CO2 or they’ll join you at 19.66

  20. Gail says:

    I find it curious that China was able to be absolutely draconian with their one-child policy, which perhaps was wicked, but prescient, and now cannot seem to see their own self-destruction implicit in burning coal.


  21. cugel says:

    Gail :

    I suspect that the one-child policy could be imposed because the dangers of over-population are cultural knowledge (so to speak) in China. It actually goes against orthodox Marxism which contends that a society properly organised can provide for its own needs. Mao held to this line; only after the Maoists fell could a vital policy be put in place.

    Climate change is likely to be viewed according to Marxist orthodoxy by the Chinese powers-that-be. In which case they will try to engineer – physically and socially – around the problem. Other things being equal, of course.

    This issue is going to be an enormous test of Obama. Only he has the status to approach the Chinese as anything other than a supplicant – there’s a lot on his shoulders. If anyone can give it a decent shot it’s Obama.

  22. Gail says:


  23. jorleh says:

    @Tim: yes,perhaps Sweden, but with what energy making fashion? As neighbours we know your water and nuclear power: 25 and 35 % ??
    And like Finland in cellulose making own power for paper industry from cellulose burning mechanisms (renewable?) 15 %? Of course Sweden, however, is one on the top.

  24. cait says:


    Are you sure? The US is in hock to China up to its eyeballs, and it wants to continue to use China as a bank, in order, ironically, to spend enormous sums inlcuding a large percentage on green initiatives for change.

    China and India are a huge worry, and I’m wondering whether some sort of grass roots action might actually make more sense than trying to sort out a tariff based on lack of investment in green energy (etc).

    It does seem ridiculous for the west to continue to purchase goods bulk made in China and shipped huge distances because it’s cheaper than making it in the US/UK etc and yet at the same time attempt to set itself up as a great ethical / green campaigner attempting to force China to change its position and plow more cash in to renewable energies. Whilst I disagree fundamentally with China’s positioning, I can se why they might criticise such hypocrisy, justifiably.

    In terms of a grass roots campaign, getting people to state clearly “I will not buy goods ‘Made In China’ without a substantial change in China’s energy policy” via action and petition sounds a bit raggedy but … I don’t know, you know. A concerted effort, in all countries where there’s a strong public level of concern… could make a difference?

    Feels a bit useless sitting back and waiting for those in power to sort it out. Particularly given the enormously effective track record thus far.

  25. Robert T says:


    “I find it curious that China was able to be absolutely draconian with their one-child policy, which perhaps was wicked, but prescient, and now cannot seem to see their own self-destruction implicit in burning coal.”

    Easily explained by “The Tragedy of the Commons”

    The benefits of burning Chinese coal accrue to China but the CO2 is everyone’s problem. Equally, not burning coal just knackers their own economy without doing much about global emissions.

  26. cugel says:

    cait :

    Sadly, the powers-that-be will have to get their act together, but it’s not an either/or – anything we can do to not be part of the problem is worthwhile.

    Let’s hope that Li Gao is only setting out an extreme negotiating position. The big question is : what (if anything) will they demand in exchange for moderating it? What do the Chinese powers-that-be want from the West?

    Hopefully they don’t want to go it alone in the belief that they can adapt, because that would be crazy.

  27. cait says:

    The most important thing we could give the Chinese and the world at large is to open up all the R&D.

    Be completely transparent about the whole deal.

    Taking it from a pro-market perspective, the more open everyone is,the quicker the R&D speeds up, the quicker things get to market and the richer all those investors will be.

    (and just perhaps the human race get to survive longer than this catastrophe)

  28. Pangolin says:

    Coal is one of the handles that the Chinese elite use to keep the population on a leash. If a district gets a little restive it’s a simple thing to restrict their coal shipments and local authorities will quickly clamp down. It’s child’s play to stop a coal shipment; it would be much harder to politically control a populace that derived the majority of it’s power needs from local, distributed, collection points.

    A nation that has the resources to build the Three Gorges Dam could commit fewer resources and convert China’s cities to to solar power with unified thermal districts that tapped into the geothermal heat sink. That isn’t even close to happening and it’s NOT because chinese engineers don’t understand ground-loop geothermal systems.

    Coal burning is China is all about political control; count on it.

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