Time for a politics of climate change

China needs to step forward in addressing the challenges of climate change, argues Caspar Henderson. By doing so, the country will help itself and the world, and be a true friend to Africa.

It is sometimes said that, given the track record of the richest industrialised nations in failing to reduce their greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions, westerners are in no position to tell China what to do, still less other countries rising from poverty. I argue that it is time to move on from such a polarised position, and to think in new ways about the technical and political challenges ahead. The argument comes in three parts:

The “safe” level of atmospheric GHG concentrations is probably much lower than is generally understood.

– China is close to, and will soon exceed, its fair share of what is already an unsustainable burden of pollution.  

This situation presents enormous political challenges, requiring extraordinary creativity and leadership at many levels within China and by the Chinese people internationally.

“Safe” levels of greenhouse gas

Unless there is radical change in the way the world produces the energy it needs and how land and other resources are used, mankind is likely to change the global climate in ways that will impose big dangers and high costs on people and nations worldwide. 

China will not be exempt from the changes. Three key impacts are described by Stephan Harrison in his contribution to chinadialogue. Higher temperatures will shrink the glaciers in the Tibetan plateau, disrupting the water supply of many hundreds of millions of people and the agriculture on which they depend. Climate change, allied to unsustainable land-use practices, will increase the number and size of dust storms from China’s deserts. And the thawing of previously frozen soils would both increase the scale of desertification and contribute to “positive feedback” to global warming. This “positive” mechanism refers to any change in the environment that leads to additional or enhanced changes. So, put simply, when frozen soils thaw, they release GHGs such as methane and carbon dioxide (CO2)—and those released gases, in turn, contribute to further warming.

Other effects of global warming would include more storms of the kind that displaced millions of people and caused $15 billion in damage to coastal provinces (according to reports from Xinhua in August 2006). And if, as former US vice president Al Gore points out in his film An Inconvenient Truth, global warming causes a substantial part of land-based ice in the west Antarctic ice sheet and in Greenland to melt, then sea-level rise will displace tens of millions of people from the regions of Shanghai, Beijing and elsewhere.

To avoid, or at least reduce, the risk of dangerous climate change with impacts such as these, it is necessary to:

sharply reduce and then stop the increasing rate of emission of  CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere; and

reduce total annual global emissions.

To date, much international discussion at the interface of science and politics has taken as a rule of thumb that — as a first step — global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide should not exceed approximately twice the concentrations which existed before the modern industrial era. A typical range used is 500 to 560 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 in the atmosphere (see, for example, Socolow et al, Science 2004, and Scientific American, September 2006).

Each part per million of CO2 corresponds to about 2.1 billion tonnes of atmospheric carbon. The current level – about 380ppm – is 800 billion tonnes; 560ppm would mean about 1.2 trillion tonnes. On this reckoning, the world adds 400 billion tonnes of carbon to the global atmosphere, but no more, and does not exceed this target.

It is sometimes argued that total global emissions of up to twice this amount, or 800 billion tonnes, would be all right because vegetation, soils and the oceans will soak up half. But this argument is open to challenge. A warmer climate is likely to mean that vegetation and soils would become a net source rather than a sink of carbon, leading to a positive feedback (warmer soils mean more CO2 and methane, more greenhouse gases mean warmer soils, and so on). 

And using the oceans as a sink causes acidification that scientists now think may cause the most rapid and disruptive change to life in the seas since catastrophic events tens of millions of years ago (see Ocean acidification due to increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide, Royal Society, August 2005 and The other CO2 problem, New Scientist, August 2006).

So, it is far from sure that atmospheric concentrations of around 560ppm will be “safe” in the sense that this level will keep the risk of disastrous impacts, including those described for China, within acceptable limits.

Advisors to the British government and others have suggested that 450 or even 400ppm of CO2 may be nearer the mark (see, for example, Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change, Schellnhuber et al, and Can 2C warming be avoided? at RealClimate),with a 2% to 20% chance of a temperature increase of 5 degrees centigrade (Meinhausen 2006, cited in the Stern Review, page 9) if global greenhouse-gas concentrations were stabilised at the equivalent of 430ppm CO2.

Virtually every advance in climate science points to bigger impacts and more serious consequences from human emissions of greenhouse gases than previously predicted. That being the case, caution is wise. And the time available to act is much shorter than is often thought. Currently, the combustion of coal, oil and gas, together with other activities, add approximately 7 billion tonnes of carbon to the atmosphere every year. At the present rate, with no acceleration, it probably would take about 12 years for atmospheric concentrations of CO2 to reach 400ppm.

[The calculation here is that at a rate of 7 billion tonnes a year, it takes 12 years to produce 84 billion tonnes; 84 billion tonnes translates to an additional 40ppm in the atmosphere, but half of this is soaked up by vegetation, soils and the oceans, meaning the net addition to the atmosphere over 12 years is 20ppm.]

Other stocks of GHG added to the atmosphere by human action, including methane and nitrous oxide, have the effect of an additional 15% of CO2, so the actual human forcing — or effect exerted — on the atmosphere when CO2 levels are 400ppm actually will be equivalent to 460ppm.

If, at such a time, it became clear that a higher concentration would cause catastrophic damage, then to avoid those impacts all emissions would have to cease immediately. Since this is virtually unthinkable, there may well be much less than 12 years for the world to begin a rapid, rational and effective transition to a very low-carbon economy.

It is likely that the risk of catastrophic climate change is already as much as one in five. The risk is increasing with every passing month in which the world fails to stabilise atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. It’s like a game of Russian roulette: there is a bullet in one of the chambers of the revolver, and we are in the process of putting in a second bullet. The gun is pointed at the head of everyone in the world.

China’s fair share

China is the second-largest single polluter, although the European Union as a whole emits more tonnes of carbon annually. Estimates of China’s total emissions vary, but one that has been widely cited puts China’s proportion of total world emissions of CO2 in 2003 at 14.1%. This accounts only for emissions from fossil-fuel combustion and does not take into account other sources of greenhouse gases. It indicates that the Chinese contribution in that year was, at a minimum, just under one billion tonnes of carbon.

But whatever the exact figures on Chinese emissions and those of other countries, there is some simple arithmetic from which we cannot escape – assuming, that is, that we want to start by stabilising global emissions at around today’s levels of 7 billion tonnes. If present-day global emissions were allocated equally to every person in the world, China – with about 22% of the global population – would be entitled to about 1.5 billion tonnes.

Energy consumption in China is currently growing at nearly 6% per year. If 10% of that additional demand is met by so-called zero-carbon sources such as wind and nuclear power (which may be controversial for other reasons), carbon emissions will still increase by more than 5% a year. At this rate, it would take about eight years from 2003 for China to be emitting 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon. And that means that by 2011 – little more than four years away – China could be exceeding its “fair” global share. Several scenarios indicate that by 2020 China will be contributing around 2 billion tonnes of carbon per year to earth’s atmosphere.

Political challenges

One of the first things that come up when China and climate change are mentioned together is that the richest countries, historically and today, are by far the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases per head of population, and have the responsibility to act first. This is certainly true. And it is often stressed, for example by Yu Hongyuan of the Shanghai Institute for International Studies.

The responsibility of the rich industrialised nations to act first was recognised in the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and in the Kyoto Protocol of 1997. China is a signatory to the protocol, and benefits from some investment in clean and renewable energy projects under its clean development mechanism (see, for example, World’s Biggest Greenhouse Gas Deal Takes Effect in Win-Win Situation for China, Industrialized Nations).

The EU is also offering some additional assistance with projects such as carbon capture and storage for one coal-fired plant by 2020 (see the article by Jon Gibbins on chinadialogue). The US, which has not ratified the protocol, says it will assist through something called the Asia-Pacific Partnership, which does not set targets to reduce emissions. The majority of American businesses leaders expect the US to join some form of cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gases within a few years.

Current actions in the richest countries are hugely, even grotesquely, inadequate given the need for cuts. So far, very few have reduced their emissions at all, except as fortuitous by-products of other measures. For example, in Britain, emissions have been rising continuously for more than 10 years, following a “dash for gas” in the 1990s which replaced much coal-fired generation with cleaner, natural-gas-powered turbines. Unified Germany was allowed to take carbon credits from the collapse of the economy of the former East Germany, which had been powered largely on lignite, one of the dirtiest forms of coal.

The richest countries need to massively ratchet up their commitment to policies that deliver greater benefits with sharply reduced energy consumption, both at home and abroad. China and other countries should press them to act faster and more effectively. But neither China nor anyone else can afford to wait for them to fail. 

Recall that China will soon exceed its “fair” share of total global emissions. Once China does so, it will no longer have the luxury of pointing the finger at other countries merely because they are even-worse greenhouse-gas polluters. Other, poorer, countries want their place in the sun, too – and, for them, China will have become a member of the club of global “bad guys”.

Hundreds of millions of people have risen from poverty since China began reforms about a quarter of a century ago. More live in hope of a similar transformation. But unless future development is undertaken with substantially lower emissions, the foundations of China’s prosperity and its future potential will be in jeopardy. The same is true of the wider world with which China is ever more interlinked.

The political challenges to achieving greener growth and distributing its benefits widely and equitably are enormous. Support and advocacy by some at high levels of government, which occurs both in the west and China, is a necessary but not a sufficient condition. Powerful interests which profit from environmental destruction stand in the way of progress. This means that the challenges are political as well as technological.

Government and civil society in China can learn something from the manifold failures and limited successes in western countries. On the plus side, countries like Britain now have something like a “mainstream” politics of climate – mainstream in the sense that the major political parties compete in pledging their commitment to green growth, and the issue is extensively debated in the news media. Even in the US – often considered the greatest obstacle to progress – the majority of citizens support action and some politicians are beginning to articulate the need for change. For example, Senator Jim Jeffords and Congressman Henry Waxman, who have introduced climate-change legislation, have said that the US needs to cut its emissions by at least 80% by 2050.

On 30 October 2006, the British government published a detailed assessment of the economic impacts of climate change. A team led by former World Bank chief economist Nicholas Stern concluded that the need for action was urgent, that acting now will be much cheaper than not acting, and that it is the only way to protect future economic growth in all countries. Crucially, the Stern Review said, “strong deliberate policies by goverments are essential to motivate change”. The British government has said it will introduce a bill in the next parliamentary session to address the challenge. 

Many civil-society groups in Britain welcome such rhetoric, but are not convinced the words will be translated into effective action because so many existing policies, from transport through regulation of the building industry, point in the opposite direction. 

On 4 November, tens of thousands of delegates from some of these groups (environment and conservation organisations, churches, unions, and women’s and others organisations, with a combined membership of many millions), took part in one of a series of demonstrations in over 50 countries. In some of the poorest and most vulnerable nations, such as Bangladesh, they called for faster action by the rich countries to reduce emissions. In Britain, the environmental group Greenpeace took more radical action by occupying and partly shutting down a coal-fired power station.

The path to a politics of climate change may be very different in China to that in the west. Certainly, westerners are in no position to tell Chinese people what they should do. But because this problem concerns all of us, it will help to share our experience – both failures and successes. China has great resources to draw on, including traditional values described by Martin Palmer, some contemporary ideas discussed by Pan Yue and campaigning such as that pursued by Ma Jun and his colleagues (all described here on chinadialogue).

At the recent summit in Beijing with 40 African leaders, vice premier Wu Yi said, “We take great pride in China’s strong and warm friendship with Africa.” If this friendship is to be genuine and durable, China needs to get serious about climate change, which, if unchecked, is likely to affect the peoples of Africa even more severely than those of China. At the just-concluded UN climate conference in Nairobi, secretary-general Kofi Annan announced a six-agency plan to help poor countries to “climate-proof” their crops and infrastructure and to obtain funds for clean energies.

Annan criticised a “frightening lack of leadership” in fighting global warming, noting that — like the US — India and China “also have to begin to take this seriously, because they are at the stage where they are also beginning to produce greenhouse gases and emissions”. It is time for the Chinese government and people to step forward and begin to play their full part in one of the greatest challenges ever faced by humanity.


Caspar Henderson is associate editor of chinadialogue.