Books: Still a long, bumpy road ahead

China’s first book on global climate diplomacy has been published. Yang Jiemian peruses its myriad views of what negotiators have achieved so far -- and the hard work that remains.

Global Climate Change Diplomacy and China’s Policy
Yu Qingtai, He Jiankun, Wang Xi, et al
Current Affairs Press, 2009

At the end of December 2008, the Shanghai Institute for International Studies (SIIS) and the environmental organisation WWF held a conference on progress in climate-change negotiations and China’s low-carbon development. This book, Global Climate Change Diplomacy and China’s Policy, is based on papers presented at that conference by experts from China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Tsinghua University and Peking University.

The first book on global climate diplomacy to be published in China, it touches upon all aspects of the negotiations and China’s low-carbon development, with a focus on five areas in particular: a summary of the Poznań meeting held earlier in December; the relationship between the financial and climate crises; climate diplomacy in the new US administration; China’s role in the formation and development of international climate-change mechanisms; and China’s policies and strategies in response to climate change.

The Bali Roadmap agreed upon in December 2007 requires negotiations on a post-Kyoto mechanism to be completed at the United Nations climate conference in Copenhagen at the end of 2009. The authors believe that some achievements have been seen in the last 18 months of negotiations, such as affirmation of two-track negotiations and common but differentiated responsibilities, and the holding to the “development first” requirement by developing nations.

But China’s special representative on climate change, Yu Qingtai, and Tsinghua University professor He Jiankun say that overall progress has been extremely slow, with advances mainly on methodology and marginal issues, with the real problems remaining unaddressed. Differences between the developing and developed nations remain prominent, with developed countries focusing on halving emissions by 2050. The developing world, meanwhile, is insisting on fair treatment in emissions reductions, adaptation, funding and technology, and is stressing that developed nations should be focusing on intermediate emissions-reduction targets. Uncertainty is causing countries to wait and see what happens, with none willing to reveal their cards.

At the same time, the global financial crisis has slowed the negotiation process. Ren Yong of the environmental protection ministry points out that financial paralysis will impact on climate-change research, development spending and technical support. Carbon markets also are in trouble, while adaptation funds stand at only US$80 million — far from the US$2 billion needed annually.

The book makes clear the close relationship between the two crises. On the surface, climate-change negotiations are about that issue alone – about environmental capacity and greenhouse-gas emissions quotas. At a deeper level, though, they are about competition over energy innovation and the freedom to grow, and are related to shifts of power within international systems.

The United States and the European Union aim to keep new energy technology and markets for themselves, monopolising the environment and ultimately controlling the low-carbon economy. This is the reason the Bali and Poznań conferences did not go smoothly – and why the Copenhagen meeting will be the same.

The financial crisis has reached all four corners of the world, and is preventing western governments from acting as they wish. However, they still aim to beat both the environmental and financial crises and the trend still is for the large-scale implementation of green energy and technology.

Zhou Hongjun, head of the Centre for International Organisations and International Law Center at the SIIS, expects major changes in US climate-change policy – a return to United Nations-led international negotiations and possibly also to the Kyoto Protocol. Since Barack Obama took office as US president in January, climate change has become a major item on both bilateral and multilateral agendas, with response to the financial crisis including plans to revitalise the economy through new energy development.

Obama’s plans will establish a cleaner energy structure through greater efficiency and the expansion of renewable energy, with a knock-on effect on the economy, industry and lifestyles. Handled correctly, this could be a new engine for economic growth in the United States and a cure for the financial crisis. This change in thinking has removed differences between the United States and the European Union on climate policy.

But the formation of future international climate-change mechanisms and the prospects for Copenhagen rest not only on the shoulders of the United States. Developing nations, represented by China and India, also bear responsibility. China’s status and role in current and future mechanisms have been pushed to the fore.

Zhang Haibin, head of Peking University’s international organisations centre, points out that climate change is rapidly moving up the political agenda in both the United States and China, with more agreement and a stronger desire for cooperation. Political, economic, security and moral considerations are promoting cooperation, but there still is much room for improvement.

Climate change is caused by carbon emissions, and carbon emissions are an energy issue. Hence climate change is, by nature, also an energy issue. As China’s emissions overtake those of the United States, the country will face yet more pressure. Figures show that China’s total emissions continue to grow rapidly, and by 2030 will be twice 2005 levels. But the head of the National Reform and Development Commission’s Energy Research Institute, Jiang Kejun, holds that this doesn’t mean there isn’t a real possibility of bringing China’s carbon emissions under control after 2020, and ending significant growth.

In the post-Kyoto era, the emerging powers – particularly China – will face ever greater pressure to reduce power use and cut emissions. Using that pressure to transform economic growth, bring resources and policy together, and make advances in energy development are not just matters of negotiating tactics. These are strategic issues that will decide China’s place in the international systems of the future. So what strategies and policies should China adopt?

According to this book, China needs to first address some misunderstandings of the past. The Kyoto Protocol actually may benefit China, for example. The country already has undertaken some of its common responsibilities and with the second stage of Kyoto and post-Kyoto negotiations, the international community will demand that China commit to strict emissions-reductions targets. Further, too much strategic emphasis has been placed on energy security, to the detriment of climate change and environmental policy; both aspects need to be a part of the national security and long-term development framework.

China also needs to make changes to its economy, achieving a low-carbon economy after 2025. The country is advanced in some low-carbon technologies, but lags behind in many others. It is essential to carry out technology transfers from the European Union and other developed nations, and to implement clean-emissions mechanisms, using carbon markets to improve China’s energy structure and develop clean-energy sources – and to increase China’s economic competitiveness.

Many of the writers comment that public awareness and participation in low-carbon activity will be the basis of this transformation. Making low-carbon consumption a social virtue, guiding and limiting consumption, and ensuring that everyone saves power and reduces emissions is of huge significance.

Pan Jiahua, head of the Center for Urban Development and Environment at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, holds that although China will face increasing pressure, the country must remain firm. Principles of carbon rights and human development mean it is unfair that developed nations have created global warming over many years through unrestricted carbon emissions, leaving no room for developing nations to grow.

Of course, China can make appropriate concessions – “measurable, reportable and verifiable” commitments on renewable energy, energy-saving and emissions-reduction — and work with different interest groups. For example, China could strive to bolster negotiations with the European Union on support for renewable-energy technology, improve cooperation with the Umbrella Group and strengthen alliances with developing nations.

Yang Jiemian is president, professor and doctoral tutor at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies.