China Is Not the Problem

by: Kate Horner

Sat Aug 15, 2009 at 12:28

- promoted by Nick Berning

International negotiators are in Germany this week, desperate to achieve progress toward the strong global climate change agreement that's supposed to be finalized in Copenhagen in December. But instead of leading the world in forging such an agreement, the United States is standing in the way.

A big reason for this -- the reason President Obama won't direct his negotiators to do what's needed -- is the domestic political opposition that a strong treaty faces. And a key argument being used by many Republicans and a fair number of Democrats to oppose such a treaty (and strong clean energy legislation at home) is that the U.S. shouldn't commit to serious emissions reductions unless China and other developed countries do so too. This is a lazy, xenophobic argument, and it needs to be knocked down.

Kate Horner :: China Is Not the Problem
We're four short months from the scheduled negotiations in Copenhagen. A failure to reach an agreement there that radically changes the way we use energy will have stark consequences. Without a strong agreement, atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations will likely pass tipping points. As a result, we could lock in runaway warming, with consequences for humans that include severe water shortages, famines, massive sea level rises, increases in infectious diseases, and at best, a dramatic reduction in quality of life. At worst, we could see a collapse of civilization.

Mohammed Nasheed, the President of the Maldives Islands (which could end up underwater), put it this way: "Copenhagen can be one of two things ... an historic agreement event where the world unites against carbon pollution ... Or, Copenhagen can be a suicide pact. The choice is that stark."

Unfortunately, the "historic agreement" of which Nasheed speaks currently seems out of reach. A big sticking point is the role that should be played by large developing nations, especially China. It's hard to have missed the fact that China now fronts the pack of the world's largest emitters. But China climate hysteria isn't warranted.

Despite many U.S. politicians' finger pointing, China has arguably outpaced us in fighting rising emissions. China has implemented aggressive fuel economy standards, passed a renewable electricity standard of 15 percent by 2020, mandated a 20 percent reduction in national energy intensity by 2010, and put in place important energy efficiency and green procurement standards. Last week, Yu Qingtai, China's top climate diplomat, said China is eager to do even more.

China, though, like other less affluent nations, has a legitimate need for economic development.  While China's advanced industrial manufacturing sector is growing, the country has one of the most bifurcated economies in the world. Millions of Chinese still live in abject poverty. And per capita emissions in China are less than one fifth those of the United States.

Developed countries are home to less than one fifth of the world's population, but as they have industrialized and grown wealthy, the have emitted almost three quarters of the world's historic greenhouse gas emissions.  Rich countries including the U.S., which industrialized using cheap, dirty energy, now enjoy the spoils of that past pollution --including roads, electricity, hospitals, and schools. It's immoral to argue that people in China -- or anywhere else -- shouldn't also be afforded access to such basic benefits of development.

The question, then, is how to delink the right to develop from the need to increase greenhouse gas emissions. Yu Qingtai says access to technology and shared research, development and deployment arrangements will be key for China. The greater the ability of developing countries to afford and make use of climate-friendly technologies, the more likely it is that they can grow their economies without a corresponding surge in emissions. But the U.S. isn't ponying up on its obligation to help fund the spread of clean technology (such funding is required by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which the U.S. has ratified). The U.S. also maintains that corporations should be allowed to keep a stranglehold on patents (recall the AIDS pandemic and the intransigence of pharmaceutical corporations, anyone?).

In Bali, Indonesia, in December of 2007, international negotiators agreed on a roadmap to do the seemingly impossible -- to get both the U.S. and developing countries, specifically China and India, on board a global climate agreement. The roadmap was palatable to the U.S. because it would require China to act (but not take on binding emissions reduction targets) and was agreeable to the developing world because it would require developed countries to live up to previous agreements and provide developing countries with technology and financial resources to address climate change.

China and many other developing countries have had their act together for well over a year and have tried diligently, though unsuccessfully, to follow the roadmap and move the negotiations forward by coming up with technology and finance proposals. The European Union, the U.S., Japan and the rest of the developed world on the other hand have dragged their feet in almost every way, failing to meet their own, self-imposed deadlines to commit to emissions reductions.

None of this should be read as letting China off the hook. Environmental problems abound in China, and if it doesn't make real reforms, it will face continued and growing social unrest.  Indeed, petitions and mass public protests in China related to environmental issues increased 30 percent in 2006 according to Chinese government figures. And there's no question China is a major emitter of heat-trapping gases. But let's get the facts straight and recognize where chief responsibility for the hundreds-of-years-in-the-making climate crisis actually lies: with the wealthy, developed countries that are responsible for the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions now in our atmosphere -- and the people in these countries who continue to produce far more global warming pollution on a per capita basis than people elsewhere.

So, given the current divide between developed and developing countries, how can a global agreement possibly be reached by negotiators by the time they arrive in Copenhagen in December?

Well, for a start, developed countries -- especially the U.S. -- need to dramatically change course and demonstrate even a sliver of the political leadership we've been promised. And yes, that responsibility lies on heads of state and delegations from those countries. But it also lies on the rest of us who live in these countries. We need to create political pressure that moves our leaders to do the right thing, and a broader political context in which they can do so without committing political suicide.

One piece of this is confronting China fear mongering head on and doing some truth-telling when the "well China isn't committing to targets" finger waggling begins. We need to tell our leaders it's time to get our own act together before criticizing other nations that have polluted far less. Developing countries have demonstrated their willingness to meet us halfway so we can arrive at a workable international agreement. It's time for the wealthier rest of us to do our fair share. Let's stop looking for scapegoats and start reducing our own emissions and living up to our international obligations. That, or we're cooked.

NOTE: I'm an international climate and energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth. This post is written as part of our sponsorship of OpenLeft.

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Just Another Chinese Ploy (0.00 / 0)
Right, so the Chinese are pushing for total authority to employ patented technologies any way they wish.  We've seen this story before from the Chinese, and it always plays out badly.  They want to manipulate their currencies to maintain a cost advantage and steal any technology they want and be immune from criticism.  It's a great game if you can tilt the playing field that way and persuade some folks that it's fair to do so.

TRIPS+ flexibility (0.00 / 0)
Without delving too deeply in to the complexities of the US-China relationship (which include the many significant fiscal and trade policy issues you raised), I would like to clarify my point on intellectual property rights.  Many, if not all, developing countries have requested greater flexibility in licensing climate friendly technologies so as to more cost-effectively reduce emissions.  Mark Weisbrot, of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, wrote an excellent OpEd in the Guardian on the subject (  He writes:

For the intellectual property fundamentalists, the income claims of patent holders are property rights, seen as analogous to a homeowner's right to her house. But the framers of the US constitution (article I, section 8) didn't it see that way, and neither, for the most part, have US courts.

Our legal system has long taken into account that protection for patent and copyright monopolies must reflect an important tradeoff between rewarding innovation and creativity, on the one hand, and allowing for the dissemination of knowledge and the development of new technologies.

No one is saying that developing countries should be allowed to "steal" technology but we must balance the public interest imperative of solving the climate crisis with safeguarding corporate profit.  Developing countries should be able to license climate friendly technologies in  the interest of safeguarding the planet.      

[ Parent ]
No, China is a really, really big problem. (0.00 / 0)
I agree with the prescriptions for what the US should do, but not the general attitude that "China is not the problem." They are a huge part of the problem. It's fine and all that they have some policies aimed at responding to global warming. But look:

China has implemented aggressive fuel economy standards, passed a renewable electricity standard of 15 percent by 2020, mandated a 20 percent reduction in national energy intensity by 2010, and put in place important energy efficiency and green procurement standards.

All this amounts to - at best - is slowing the rate of growth in emissions. They'll be producing 15% renewable energy by 2020? Huzzah! Except that their electricity consumption has increased by over 100% in the last ten years. Further growth will mostly come from coal, the dirtiest of the fossil fuels.

Meanwhile, here's a fun stat: the rate of car ownership in China today is about comparable to that in the US... in 1915. You think a billion Chinese can be kept off the roads for the sake of 22nd Century Mauritians?

so let's lead the world in how to do things differently (0.00 / 0)
Thank for your comments. The point you are making is absolutely at the crux of the problem - how can developing countries achieve prosperity without following the same dirty development pathway that we did.  As I mentioned above, that means that developing countries will need access to cleaner, climate-friendly technologies.  At a more fundamental level, it also means that the entire world must commit to vastly reduced consumption. Again, though, the US and other developed countries are the main culprits of wasteful and excessive consumption.      

I certainly do not mean to suggest that we ignore any significant source of greenhouse gas emissions, of which China certainly is one. However, if we are to establish an equitable agreement to tackle climate change then policies need to reflect who bears historical responsibility for the problem.  The United States and other industrialized countries have used up the vast majority of the earth's total carbon budget and the onus should be on us to lead the world in how to do things differently.  

And let's be clear, the consequences of not getting it right will be made painfully apparent a lot sooner than the 22nd century.  Indeed, the climate crisis is already affecting livelihoods across the world.  

[ Parent ]
We Need to Look in the Mirror (0.00 / 0)
Not only is the United States emitting huge amounts of greenhouse gases, the country has also outsourced much of its pollution to China. (U.S. imports from China are huge.)

Embodied emissions (0.00 / 0)
Agreed. Unfortunately, trade-based emissions accounting (also called embodies emissions accounting) hasn't really taken hold in the UNFCCC. For more on that point check out:

[ Parent ]

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