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.]
- What will make Obama a great president, Part 2: A climate deal with China
- Chinese Premier: Rich nations should ditch ‘unsustainable’ lifestyles … and stop buying all the crap we make
- Can China go green?
- Who will be the biggest obstacle to climate action in the next decade — China, Russia, India, or us?
- Chapter Nine Excerpt: The U.S.-China Suicide Pact on Climate
- Are China’s Carbon Emissions China’s?
- Taking on the “China Excuse” for inaction
- Bush-like doubletalk from Chinese foreign minister
- China’s immoral energy policy — Part II: The efficient alternative
- The immorality of China’s coal policy is breathtaking (literally) — Part I