Deepening the dialogue with China

Phil Woolas is a minister of state for climate change, energy and sustainable development in the British government. Here, he talks to Sam Geall about his ongoing work with the UK-China Sustainable Development Dialogues.

Sam Geall: It is a year since the first ministerial meeting of the UK-China Sustainable Development Dialogues. Since then, how do you feel things have progressed?

Phil Woolas: Further than we thought; and probably further than we hoped, as well. We’re very pleased – the seriousness with which the Chinese government and its agencies and the UK are taking this issue is much greater than people realise. I would say it is the most developed dialogue we’ve got.

SG: chinadialogue is one of the projects that have been supported by the Dialogues. What are some of the other projects they have enabled?

PW: There are mutually beneficial projects in the area of forestry, for instance. Although the scale of forestry in China is huge, in the UK we have 90 years of so of experience in afforestation. Our reputation in the world of forestry is very high, and this collaboration on forestry is beneficial for other countries as well.

There is also a general increase in collaboration at a research-and-development, academic level, and there are other parts of the relationship outside the formal dialogue – on energy, for instance, in the UK-China task force, of which I am a member. It is deepening and broadening, so it’s very exciting.

SG: You have pointed to some areas where China can learn from the UK on climate change. But if we are really going to urge a sustainable model of growth in China – or anywhere in the developing world – don’t we need to show a serious intent to reduce our levels of consumption?

PW: We do, but what I think was really the most encouraging point that came out of meeting Du Ying [vice minister of the National Development and Reform Commission] was that the goal of their policy is the same as ours, which is to decouple economic growth from emissions. I found China’s view on this progressive, and well ahead of many countries in the world. The UK’s economy has grown by 27% in the last 10 years, but our emissions have reduced by 7%. That shows the world – and ourselves – that you can have green economic growth. In terms of the debate about the future of our planet and our environment, most commentators – and indeed most agitators – make the assumption that you can only have economic growth at the cost of the environment, or you can only have environmental sustainability at the cost of economic prosperity. What China and the UK are showing is that you can have both – and that is of profound importance.

SG: But isn’t the UK government lagging behind other British institutions in this? A Sustainable Development Commission report in March showed that government departments are using more water and more carbon, and that they are less energy efficient than they were in 1999.

PW: The UK government – as an institution – has lots of catching up to do. It is a flotilla, not a battleship, and each ship has to improve. We see ourselves as a flagship at Defra [the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs], and we aim to improve the situation.

SG: One of our readers, commenting in Chinese on, responded to a report [first published in the Guardian newspaper] that says the UK is only on track to have 5% of its energy coming from renewables by 2020, a fraction of the 20% by 2020 EU target. He said: "On one hand, [the British government] are… urging China to start cutting emissions… on the other hand, they are acting slowly themselves, or even thinking of ways to eat their words" How would you respond to his comment?

On the specifics of the Guardian article, I would refute the claim the authors made, which I thought was a misinterpretation of what was being said.

However, on the substantive point, the reader is right to say that on current trends, the UK will miss our target on renewables. On Kyoto – on the bigger picture – we will meet our target and we are very pleased with that. But let me say: we are not trying to tell the Chinese people what to do. The Chinese government – in my experience of international dialogue – is part of the solution, not part of the problem. They are well in advance of most countries in recognising the depth and breadth of the problem, and we are already seeing that they are taking substantial action at home. We are not trying to tell the Chinese people that we have got it right and they have got it wrong. For instance, in our objectives for Bali [see below], we are calling for binding agreements from the developed countries; we don’t make that request of China.

Regarding renewables, we do need to have a step change. We think that the Severn Estuary barrier, which would generate tidal power, will help – though perhaps not in the timescale that is required of us. We also think that anaerobic digestion for power will help enormously, and we will see an exponential rise in the use of combined heat and power. We do not include nuclear power in the renewables target, but our energy policy is looking to see how nuclear power can contribute to reducing our emissions. You will have to come back in 2020 – we are determined not to be embarrassed on the international stage, and we will address the issue.

SG: You have mentioned the UNFCCC meeting in Bali in December, when world leaders will meet to discuss an agreement on climate change for the period after the first set of Kyoto Protocol commitments expires in 2012. Why do you feel that China – or other large developing countries – should not have to face binding targets?

PW: We think there is a question of the historical legacy: the UK was emitting greenhouse gases 150 to 200 years ago, before the industrialisation of India, China or other developing countries. We also recognise that they have the right to sustainable economic growth and development, and we believe that a major way in tackling the problem is to have a robust emissions trading market, and for that to work you need the richest countries to participate. Moreover, I think that there is a patronising assumption in some policies – and I would say this of policies put forward by the Conservative Party in the UK – that the developing world should have old technologies and that the developed world should have new technologies. The world doesn’t work like that. The technologies that we are developing – clean coal, for example – will apply in the developing world just as much as the developed world. If we can get that binding target agreed in the developed world, we will change the direction of energy policy and industrial-processing policy in the developing world also, through technology transfer, through markets that we are creating and through trade. It will be particularly true in China, given the size and the importance of its economy.

SG: You would say, then, that China can become an incubator for climate-friendly technologies?

PW: It’s already happening. I’m very excited, as a member of the China-UK task force, about the eco-city project in Dongtan. In the UK, our new prime minister has now launched a programme to build eco-towns. China is already doing it.

SG: But still, when I tell people in China that I work on climate-change issues, some will actually respond: "Climate change? Emissions cuts are a method that rich countries want to use to stop China from succeeding." How would you respond to this?

PW: I can respond to this directly by saying that the economic success of China has helped the development of the United Kingdom. We are major traders with each other. Our policy is that the prosperity of China increases our own prosperity and opportunities. Our secondary schools now teach Mandarin Chinese – and Cantonese in some cases. All of our nine major cities have China relationships at a business and commerce level. We don’t base our policy on maintaining a competitive advantage in markets by keeping other countries down. Our experience in the European Union has been that the prosperity of our partners encourages our own prosperity: Ireland has been the best example of that, I think, in the world.

SG: What do you see coming out of the future of the Sustainable Development Dialogues?

PW: We have agreed to extend the dialogue – and it has been judged to be a success, but our co-operation needs to be deeper, and we need clear, agreed timetables for the future.

Phil Woolas is the minister of state for climate change, energy and sustainable development in the British government

Sam Geall is deputy editor of chinadialogue