China’s Changing Climate Provides New Energy In Negotiations

Our guest bloggers are Andrew Light and Nina Hachigian, Senior Fellows at the Center for American Progress.

This week the Obama administration convened a meeting of 17 of the world’s major economies in a forum on global warming outside of the ongoing U.N. climate change process. Though the history of this Major Economies Forum is somewhat tainted, it may well provide a useful opportunity to engage China on global warming, on its way to surpass the United States as the world’s number one carbon emitter. Recent statements by top Chinese officials evince a new openness to adopting targets to reduce the rate of growth in carbon emissions:

Su Wei, a leading figure in China’s climate change negotiating team, said that officials were considering introducing a national target that would limit emissions relative to economic growth in the country’s next five-year plan from 2011.

While that is a small step, it’s a significant one. China and the five other major emitters among developing nations — India, Indonesia, Brazil, South Africa, and Mexico — were not required to accept mandatory carbon emissions caps under the Kyoto Protocol, as they did not put the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that are causing current increases in global temperatures. The United States alone is responsible for nearly 30 percent of all cumulative global warming pollution. Nonetheless, this exception for developing countries was a key part of the unanimous Senate objection to U.S. ratification of the treaty. The China exception remains at the core of congressional objections to an international agreement on climate change.


Enticing direct negotiation with the major emitting developing nations — especially China — is critical to getting a global climate change agreement inside or outside of the UNFCCC process. There are many indications that China is ready to talk — and even more that China is already taking action.

China is ahead of the United States in terms of its own green stimulus package. It’s a much bemoaned talking point in these discussions that China has far surpassed U.S. capacity in solar cell production since 2005. Chinese leaders are “investing $12.6 million every hour to green their economy.” China is spending twice as much as we are in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act on green jobs and a green recovery despite the relatively larger size of the U.S. economy.

As China’s political climate changes, its physical climate is getting hotter as well. In January 2008, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification was held in Beijing, a megacity that is already severely swept by dust storms from western and northern regions every year. Shrinking glaciers are starting to cause serious water problems and more intensive damage in the country’s mountainous regions — problems that will soon stress the country’s capacity for short-term mitigation. Just as in the United States, the consequences of climate change are increasingly felt immediately and understood through direct observation rather than being confined to climate modeling.

Joint technological capacity building may be the best road to a new global energy future and help to stimulate the set of climate change agreements which will move us there. Xie Zhenhua, Vice Chairman of the National Development Reform Commission, reiterated that China’s commitment to accepting nationally appropriate reduction goals depends on receiving technology assistance. In Todd Stern’s testimony earlier this month he made it clear that the first priority for the United States in these meetings will be to push along the conversation on technology transfer as a key component of acceptance of emissions caps by the developing major emitters. Such proposals should be discussed now and followed up at the next Major Economies Forum this July in La Maddalena, Italy following the G-8 meeting.

The official Chinese position on climate change remains — you broke it, you fix it. But a creative nudge on the U.S.’s part and a subtle shift in Beijing’s position could open up some real movement in the diplomatic lead up to global climate-change negotiations in Copenhagen.

Read the extended version of this post, “Rise of the Green Dragon?,” at the Center for American Progress.