A Call for Action from China Hands

[With global climate negotiators meeting in Bonn, this week will have more of an international flavor. Here’s another guest post from 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.]

A number of well-respected US think tanks and NGO’s have recently issued reports and roadmaps that urge greater cooperation between the US and China on global warming issues and less finger pointing. For the most part, the proposals make very positive contributions and should aid the fight to reduce the growth of greenhouse gas emissions. Many other NGO’s have been working on the ground in China for years and are also making important contributions to efforts to trim China’s carbon emissions. These efforts deserve our support (and thanks), and should continue.

Here’s the problem. We are fast approaching the point (Copenhagen, December 2009) where the rubber will (must!) hit the road. We are operating under an international framework that supports a “common, but differentiated” approach to global climate change negotiations. The “differentiated” component means that less is expected of “developing” countries, like China, than developed ones. The crucial question is how “differentiated” should China’s obligations be? Is China more like the US or more like Haiti? China’s historical as well as current and future carbon emission projections need to be considered in answering this question and tailoring its contributions to carbon reduction efforts.

Many of the groups referenced in the first paragraph have (and rightly so) pointed to the contributions that China has made and continues to make to reduce the growth of its carbon footprint. But, does anyone believe that these actions, even if effectively implemented, are sufficient to avoid catastrophic climate change? If so, by all means make the case. Bear in mind, however, that a recent McKinsey study, China’s green revolution, predicts that even with a continuation of China’s current energy efficiency improvement efforts and a 4.8% annual growth rate of carbon efficiency, China’s green house gas emissions in 2030 will be more than double 2005 levels (14.5 Gt per year of CO2e in 2030 vs. 6.8 Gt per year in 2005). If more is required (the McKinsey study provides some ideas as to additional actions that should be taken), how do we convince China to commit to those further actions at Copenhagen, and how much are those commitments going to cost the developed countries in terms of financial aid? If nothing further can be expected of China, then please share with us your proposal for averting catastrophic climate change.

The US must lead on climate change; few dispute that fact. But at this point, it seems unlikely that US leadership in the form of cap and trade legislation will be free of provisions that impose sanctions (probably some form of import tariff) upon other countries that fail to impose sufficiently stringent carbon controls. If no consensus has been developed on what China can and must do on the climate change front, and how we need to engage China to ensure that these actions are implemented, then things are going to get very, very ugly.

I know some groups like the National Resources Defense Council are working on proposals. Greenpeace China (a group I have taken to task in the past) is also stepping up to the plate in its own inimitable way. It recently staged a light projection on Yongdingmen gate just south of Tiananmen Square in Beijing. In a statement issued in conjunction with the light show it said:

Our main message is to call on China to play a strong leadership role at the UN meeting in Copenhagen in December.

“We urge President Hu Jintao to personally attend the Copenhagen climate meeting,” Greenpeace China Climate and Energy campaigner Li Yan told media at the press event.

“As the largest global greenhouse emitter, China can and must take a leadership role in tackling global warming,” she added.

OK, maybe it’s a little light on specifics, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Time is indeed running out. Without leadership from the green and policy groups in the US that know China the best about how we get from here to an effective solution at Copenhagen (or shortly thereafter), the prospects look very bleak.

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