China & India: hard choices in a divided world

Climate change will have a disastrous impact on the world's poor, says a UN report. As key climate talks in Bali draw near, how should India and China approach an increasingly divided world? Li Taige reports.


The World Toilet Summit was held in New Delhi on October 31,” read a text message sent to me by a colleague in Beijing. “According to the World Health Organisation, 2.6 billion people do not have access to ‘improved sanitation’ – more than half of them in China and India.” My friend thought it was a joke, but in fact three years ago Beijing played host to the World Toilet Summit.

The World Toilet Organization (known as the WTO, but not to be confused with the World Trade Organization) chose the right location when it opted to hold its summit in India. India is the world’s most toilet-poor nation, even more so than China. It is hard to find a public toilet on the streets of New Delhi, but you see plenty of men standing against walls relieving themselves. In a sense, the state of a nation’s toilets reflects the state of its economy and society.

Hundreds of millions of Indians continue to live in poverty, with no access to adequate sanitation or domestic conveniences. An Indian government report, India: Addressing Energy Security and Climate Change, says 600 million Indians have no electricity – a figure equal to the combined populations of the EU and the US.

And China finds itself in similar circumstances. Speaking at an NGO workshop on climate change negotiations held in Beijing on November 18, Lu Xuedu, deputy director general at the Ministry of Science and Technology’s Office of Global Environmental Affairs, said that according to the UN standard of US$1 a day, China still has at least 200 million people living in poverty. “There’s a village by the Miyun Reservoir which I have visited three times,” said Lu. “The poverty there is appaling. Wangfujing [a major shopping street] in Beijing and the Bund in Shanghai do not give you the whole picture.” The Miyun Reservoir is less than 100 kilometres from central Beijing.

It is facts like these that have led India and China’s governments to refuse to commit to reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions. Professor Zou Ji, deputy dean at Remin University’s School of Environment and Natural Resources, is a member of China’s delegation to UN climate change talks. At one heated point at the COP11 climate-change negotiations in Montreal in 2005, he told delegates: “It cost tens of thousands of yuan for me to get here – enough to support a rural Chinese family for years. Why am I here? To represent the Chinese people. Come and see how many Chinese people do not have air-conditioning in summer or heating in winter . . . We need to improve the conditions they live in, and of course that will mean more emissions. These are essentials, not luxuries!”

But international calls for China and India to undertake emissions reductions are becoming stronger. On December 3, UN climate change talks will open in Bali. It is expected that the US and other developed countries will continue to put pressure on the world’s most populous developing nations. Even the ever-cautious UN has called for more action from China and India. On November 27, the UN Development Programme published its 2007/2008 Human Development Report, Fighting climate change: human solidarity in a divided world. The report recommends that developed countries reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions by between 20% and 30% by 2020, and 80% by 2050. Major emitters among developing countries should aim for their emissions to peak by 2020, and to fall 20% by 2050.

This report was edited by Kevin Watkins, director of the UN's Human Development Report Office, who reportedly said at a reporters’ workshop held a month prior to publication: “We suggest rich countries take deep cuts of 80% from their present level of emissions and other countries (including India and China) take on targets as well. Rich countries should provide the finances for these countries to achieve their targets

Sunita Narain, from India’s Centre for Science and Environment expressed surprise: “If the UN is saying this, it is a regressive stand.” Narain believes that developing countries should not be required to reduce emissions, but that developed countries should provide the funding framework for them to leapfrog to clean technologies.

As a Chinese journalist, I do not believe China and India should undertake to cut emissions at this stage. But the two nations should do their best to play a more constructive role.

In fact, the Chinese government has already taken a number of measures to reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions. As Lu Xuedu pointed out, the Chinese government has set a target of a 20% reduction in energy consumption per unit of GDP between 2006 and 2010 – equivalent to saving of 600 million tonnes of coal. “That would be unthinkable in some western countries, and it is not easy to achieve,” said Lu.

China was also the first developing country to publish a national plan of action on climate change – in June this year. For this reason, Ban Ki-Moon, the UN secretary general, singled out China for praise at a press conference in November to mark the release of the fourth report from the International Panel on Climate Change.

The Chinese government in September launched a nationwide campaign to persuade citizens to reduce their emissions and energy usage. This is no doubt praiseworthy, but could China also ask some of its citizens – the rich, for instance – to make a greater contribution than just voluntary behavioural changes?

Both China and India have massive gaps between rich and poor, though the situation in India is even worse than in China. In New Delhi and Mumbai, skyscrapers contrast with slums, many cannot afford even to take a bus. Yet as a friend from Mumbai told me, the tycoon Mukesh Ambani is in the process of building a 27-storey mansion – with its first six storeys alone allocated for parking.

China has 345,000 residents with assets over US$1 million, according to October's Merrill Lynch and Capgemini "Asia-Pacific Wealth Report", second only to Japan — and up 7.8% on last year. India has 100,000 millionaires, up 20.5% on last year.

As the Human Development Report says, we live in a divided world. According to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, rich and poor nations have common but differentiated responsibilities. Is the same also true for the rich and poor citizens of developing nations?

Li Taige is a Beijing-based journalist. He obtained a masters degree in engineering from Sichuan University in 1997, and studied as a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2003-2004.

Homepage photo by Saad.