“I openly call for emissions cuts” (1)

He is one of the country’s best known economists, and a rare voice in calling on China to commit to reductions in greenhouse-gas pollution. Liu Jianqiang and Yi Shui talk to Hu Angang.

[Produced in association with Rutgers Climate and Social Policy Initiative]

The publication of Hu Angang’s essay for chinadialogue, “A new approach at Copenhagen”, met with a large response. Hu is a well-known economist and professor at Tsinghua University; he is also an adviser to the Chinese government. The article, published in April, suggested that China promote a global deal on emissions reductions by drawing up its own commitments, thus making an environmental contribution to the world.

Hu’s article has received both fierce criticism and enthusiastic praise. A member of the Chinese delegation to the climate change talks in Bonn commented on chinadialogue that Hu’s standpoint “lacks intrinsic knowledge about how climate-change problems have appeared and lacks any common sense of history or knowledge of the current situation of international politics.” However, an NGO observer at the talks responded, “if China keeps repeating the hackneyed refrain of ‘equality and justice’ in the few months left before Copenhagen round of talks, rather than putting forward its own views and propositions on this issue, it will find itself stuck in an ever unfavourable position. I believe professor Hu has made a good motion by airing his viewpoint and sparking a popular discussion. The sooner we do this the better.”

Liu Jianqiang and Yi Shui, editors at chinadialogue in Beijing, interviewed Hu to ask him how China should deal with the climate-change problem.

chinadialogue: Some commentators say that although you are an expert on China, your work on climate change does not reflect that expertise. As an economist, how and when did you come to research climate change?

Hu Angang: Actually a lot of people think it’s strange: “Hu’s an economist – an expert on the nation, why is he interested in climate change? How has he come up with these new and distinctive opinions so quickly?” However, a mature point of view does not just appear; it took 10 years, 20 years or longer.

Twenty years ago I wrote a report with Niu Wenyuan and Wang Yi, two colleagues at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, called “The ecological deficit: China’s greatest future challenge”. We wrote that the ecological crisis would evolve into the central issue of human existence and development in the twenty-first century. We covered seven major ecological and environmental issues, the very first of which was global climate change and rising sea levels. In 1989, academics had calculated that by 2030 global temperatures would have risen by between 1.5 and 4.5 degrees Celsius, with sea levels of between 20 to 140 centimetres. We were very concerned about the impact of that on China’s coastal regions and agriculture, including the availability of fresh water.

cd: What were your conclusions?

HA: Our basic conclusion was that this was a crisis for humanity as a whole. One nation’s pollution impacts on its neighbours by exacerbating climate change. The greenhouse gases emitted by one country do not remain in that particular country. Humanity had to respond in concert.

Thus in 2008 I paraphrased the Olympic slogan, “one world, one dream”, adapting it to climate change. “One world” is to say that our world continues to get smaller; “one dream” refers to our need to adopt environmentally-friendly practices – that’s our dream. I would also add “one action”: we need to reach agreement at Copenhagen to reduce emissions together.

As early as 1989 we had discussed the consequences of the environmental crisis for China’s security. Rising sea levels would have a grave impact on China’s three densely populated and economically crucial river deltas [the Pearl River Delta, the Yangtze River Delta and the Yellow River Delta]. Those are China’s three most developed areas, and also the areas most frequently hit by natural disasters; thus the potential for economic losses is huge. In 2008, I visited Caofeidian, in Hebei province, a development on land that has been reclaimed from the sea. However, have they considered rising sea levels? If they were to, the costs would rocket. In February 2008 I went to Zhuhai, in Guangdong province. There, they take rising sea levels into account when reclaiming land and building infrastructure. But are there many more areas that are not taking such questions into account? It is very likely there are, and nobody knows how far sea levels will rise. The impact of climate change also means that disasters that at one time would only strike once in a century, now might hit every decade or even more frequently.

In 1989 we also discussed the major environmental impact that China had on the planet. At that point I was already pro-globalisation. First, China is the world’s most populous nation, so it has a major impact on environment and climate-change issues as a result. China is already one of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases. Second, China is the world’s largest producer and consumer of coal, a huge contributor to global warming, and no other nation can ignore this. That inevitably leads to frictions. We were saying that this background was important, that it gave China no choice but to view environmental management as of great strategic import, in order to participate in humanity’s efforts to protect the environment and save the planet. That view is still valid today. It was basically my view on global climate change and the environment 20 years ago.

In 1997 I co-authored a report with experts from the Institute of Geographical Sciences at the Chinese Academy of Sciences called, “China’s natural disasters and economic development”. I was the first of China’s economists to research the country’s natural environment and economic development, because growth and social progress is founded on an understanding of the environment, on protection and investment in natural systems. Through that research, I found that the climate is often the cause of natural disasters in China, making the country the largest victim of natural disasters, and the biggest victim of climate change. I went on to do some initial calculations and research, and found that the impact of disasters has increased rapidly since the 1950s. In that decade, 3.8 million tonnes of grain were lost per year, compared to 34 million tonnes per year from 2001 to 2006. In terms of the percentage of total production, in the 1950s that was 2.1%, in 2001 to 2006 it was 7.4%. On the one hand you have increased production, but on the other you have wider areas affected by disasters. We concluded that China would be the biggest victim of global warming, even before we considered that receding glaciers, rising snowlines and melting permafrost are putting the “water tower of Asia” – the source of our rivers – in grave danger.

In my book, Survival and development, I calculated that the frequency of natural disasters increased from the Sui Dynasty (581 to 618 CE) to the Tang Dynasty (618 to 917), from the Tang to the Song (960 to 1279) and increased again in the Qing (1644 to 1911). Historical data shows that disasters have increased in frequency since the 1950s; I inferred that this will continue. In the future, more scientific predictions will be made, but the conclusion will not be much different.

cd: When it comes to climate change, what would you say China’s “national circumstances” actually are?

HA: First, China is the largest victim of climate change. Second, adapting to climate change is in China’s core interests.

It would be petty of us to discuss how best to haggle with the foreigners at Copenhagen. We should start with the question of China’s own interests. In The second transformation: construction of state systems, I wrote that ecological security and environmental protection were two of our five core national interests. And this is not because of pressure from the United States and western nations. Unfortunately, many do not realise that addressing these issues is in China’s own interests, and those of all humanity – they are the shared core interests of China and the rest of the world. If our leaders can realise this, they will agree to make emissions cuts, rather than continuing to refuse. But as you know, I am the only Chinese academic openly calling for emissions cuts, and that is just lamentable. I need to spread this idea, no matter how long it takes. I believe that ultimately it will become the consensus among both China’s leaders and its people. So, that is how I sum up my views on China’s environment and climate change: it’s in China’s core national interests, and I’m saying so publicly.

NEXT: How is Chinese climate-change policy formed?

Hu Angang is one of China’s best-known economists. He is professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Tsinghua University and the director of the Centre for China Study, a leading policy think-tank. Hu has worked as the chief editor for China Studies Report, a circulated reference for senior officials.

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Himepage image Bert van Dijk