Key questions at Copenhagen

Can a new relationship between China and the United States help form a new climate-change agreement in Denmark this year? CS Kiang and Luo Rui report.

Last year’s United Nations-led climate-change talks in Poznan, Poland, were the midway point in discussions about the post-Kyoto Protocol regime (see “What happened at Poznan?” by Tan Copsey). Hopes were high, but the global financial crisis meant politicians were preoccupied with economic recovery. Two weeks of talks merely resulted in a working plan. Key questions for negotiation will not be identified until the meeting later this year in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Past climate-change negotiations have often been dramatic. One example was the last-minute change in position by the United States at the talks in Bali, Indonesia. The Copenhagen talks may see similar twists and turns. However, there are longer-term issues to discuss. We must identify which questions the negotiations need to answer in order to lay a firm foundation for long-term approaches to climate change.

The Fourth Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said that climate change is having an increasing impact on global temperatures and ecosystems. If we are to limit the global average temperature increase to 2° Celsius, global greenhouse-gas emissions need to be controlled at between 50% and 85% of 1990 levels by 2050. Although the science has been strengthened since the Bali meeting, data on emissions reduction targets are still provided only in the footnotes of negotiation documents.

The Kyoto Protocol shows that politicians are capable of compromising in order to achieve emissions-reduction targets. But the climate will not compromise: we need to follow the science in order to evaluate the risks and produce a framework when Kyoto expires in 2012 – and after – and tie this to policy targets on mitigation, adaptation and ecosystem recovery. The complexity and uncertainty of climate science means that room must be left for future adjustments in response to new findings.

Climate negotiations are political, and national political will is decided by a country’s economic development. The Kyoto Protocol and the Bali Action Plan (BAP) provide only hypothetical figures for long-term emissions growth, without accounting for the impact of short-term economic fluctuations.

Economic development and greenhouse-gas emissions are closely related. For example, the success of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) depends on the implementation of the treaty by industrialised nations. But as economies contract, the industries that rely on fossil fuels reduce production or close. This can bring the CDM and clean energy investment to a halt.

The Kyoto Protocol does not fully consider national interests and concerns, but the BAP has started to address this failing. Economic recovery is now the overriding concern: if the negotiations toward Copenhagen are dominated by calls for further emissions reduction targets this will not help to form a new climate deal. The focus of the negotiations needs to be economic recovery; this will promote action from the governments and investors that need to see economic development.

No real global reduction in emissions will be seen without real action from major economic powers. The unilateral climate deals of the European Union are unsustainable. Unless nations such as the United States, China and India take the lead, the Copenhagen negotiations may end in deadlock.

The United States and China have key roles to play. In historical, cumulative terms, the United States is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, but current trends indicate that China will take that title in future. Despite differences in economic development, structure and political systems, the two countries are facing the same climate and economic security challenges.   

Both countries have proposed major investment in technology and infrastructure; now we need innovative bilateral partnerships. The two countries have much in common when it comes to increasing energy efficiency, reducing carbon emissions from power generation and developing sustainable energy sources. Practical cooperation on energy distribution, transportation and construction is a real possibility. In the past there has been wide-ranging Sino-US cooperation on environment and energy, but political concerns meant technical and financial partnerships were unstable. The sustained support of the leadership of both nations is essential for long-term cooperation, and now is the ideal opportunity. Chinese and US government approaches can have a crucial influence on the climate and energy crisis: bilateral Sino-US agreements could give rise to similar deals, such as between China and India, or between the EU and the United States – and move UN negotiations forward.

Greenhouse-gas emissions have fallen as industrial output falls. However, emissions will rebound when the economy recovers. The downturn is no solution to the climate problem. Nor will a simple extension of the Kyoto Protocol result in real climate action. Developed nations may find it easier than expected to meet their targets due to the downturn, but the long-term question is how to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions while resuscitating the global economy.

Now is the moment to reverse the climate crisis. Today’s industrial structures, infrastructure construction and natural resource allocation will determine future emissions. If national economic stimulus packages and public policy can aim to increase energy efficiency, construct environmentally friendly buildings, clean up electricity distribution, build smart power grids, develop renewable energy and drive forward clean transport, we can bolster our economies and lay the foundation for a low-carbon economy, achieving both economic development and climate protection.

However, the low-carbon technology industry is not the same as the information technology or biotechnology industries. It is both capital-intensive and knowledge-intensive; private investment alone will not help the industry scale up sufficiently. The scale of the market must be increased by public funds and clear, long-term policy signals, which will increase private investment.

Economic recovery can form the focus for climate-change negotiations, with major economies establishing bilateral partnerships and using stimulus packages to transform traditional models of growth. However, these efforts cannot be separated from technology issues. Technology-transfer mechanisms have long been the sticking point in negotiations; recent research has found that 76% of transfers still take place between developed nations. Since developing nations may not yet able to foster innovation, technology partnerships with industrialised nations are a good place to start.

An international climate-change agreement should see technology transfer taking place between major economies, with technology cooperation and knowledge-sharing in priority areas, including emissions reduction, economic growth promotion and the strengthening of energy security through infrastructure construction. If high-level government cooperation can send a clear signal, private firms will be encouraged to invest in new innovation and research.

Economic turbulence presents a serious challenge to climate-change negotiations, but it also makes formerly rigid systems more flexible. We can take advantage of economic recovery packages to switch to low-carbon alternatives, using government-led technical partnerships for infrastructure construction, energy efficiency and clean energy projects in order to encourage private investment. Only then will a post-Kyoto climate regime be effective.

Most important of all, would be to see a stable climate-change partnership between the United States and China this year. If we can make this happen, it will be a huge step forward for the world.

Luo Rui is a postgraduate student at Peking University’s Institute of Environmental Science and Engineering; he was an observer for China Climate Action Network at the COP13 talks in Bali and COP14 in Poznan,and participated in the "2041" Antarctica expedition.

CS Kiang is director of Peking University Environment Fund and was dean of the university’s Institute of the Environment from 2002 to 2005.

He Gang, Yu Jie and Yang Pingjian also contributed to this article.

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