Wandering China

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How China views climate change issue [Straits Times]


While there has been discussion about US climate change policy, less attention has focused on how and why China views the problems of global warming differently from the West.

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How China views climate change issue
By Julian Hunt, For The Straits Times
Source – Straits Times, published December 10, 2010

THE Cancun climate change conference, which ends today, is taking place in the context of the summer’s extraordinary floods in Asia and record high average temperatures around the whole world (with drought in parts of Asia and southern Africa). Moreover, with the snows melting last year on the Andes, as on high mountains everywhere, the Amazon had record high and record low levels.

While the ‘urgency to act’ is thus growing, the prospects of a comprehensive global deal on climate change remain slim. The central problem is that there is uneven elite and popular support for the United Nations’ objective of achieving within the next 20 to 30 years the necessary reductions in overall emissions of greenhouse gases.

At the Cancun preparatory meeting in Tianjin in October, little progress was made amid widely reported public disagreements between the United States and China. While Washington accused Beijing of reneging on its commitments to transparency under last year’s Copenhagen Accord, China asserted that the US was not reducing its greenhouse gases.

Some news reports have suggested the US and China have narrowed their differences at Cancun, though Chinese officials say China’s emissions should remain free of binding limits. A significant US-China rapprochement on this and other issues will probably not be enough to secure a comprehensive deal at Cancun, but it will increase the prospects for a new agreement next year and beyond. What are the chances of the US and China moving closer in the months to come?

To answer this question, it is imperative to understand the Chinese perspective on climate change, especially as China is now the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. While there has been discussion about US climate change policy, less attention has focused on how and why China views the problems of global warming differently from the West.

For instance, in discussions in the West over how to avoid dangerous climate change, two numbers are especially prominent: 450 parts per million (ppm) and 2 deg C. These are, respectively, the upper ‘safe’ concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, and the upper ‘safe’ limit of average global temperature increase. The fear is that if we exceed either, the climate will pass an irreversible tipping point.

In my visits to China, I have heard some very different numbers. China is committed to political stability, which depends on economic growth. Over the next 40 years, its gross domestic product (GDP) will increase by a factor of six. The driving force of this growth will be fossil fuels, in particular coal.

China’s policy is to increase the output of its coal-fired electricity generation while improving efficiency. This is its only significant target in relation to climate change. It is not committed to limiting emissions so as not to exceed any particular target for global CO2 concentration.

This is not to say, however, that China does not regard climate change seriously. Legislation will soon also be introduced to make compulsory the reductions in emissions per unit of energy by up to 40 per cent and to expand low carbon supplies by up to 15 per cent of the total, including solar, wind, hydro and nuclear fission. The authorities are already encouraging industries to reduce emissions by using carbon trading at five regional centres. Beijing is also considering a mandatory carbon trading scheme.

Despite these efforts, the country’s booming overall emissions will contribute significantly to atmospheric CO2. The Beijing Climate Centre estimated last year that by 2050, total Chinese greenhouse gas emissions might be more than double what they are now.

Climate models indicate that this continued growth in emissions will lead to atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gas equivalent to about 600ppm and global land temperatures in excess of 3 to 4 deg C by 2100. These are staggering numbers. The key question now is whether the rest of the world can do anything to avoid the risk of dangerous climate change that these numbers imply?

I believe there are reasons to be hopeful. The main way that China can limit its emissions will be to improve the efficiency of its coal-fired power stations, adopt carbon capture and storage, and expand nuclear energy. Developed countries can facilitate this transition by providing it with substantial technological assistance.

But first, the Western nations must commit to making deep cuts in their own emissions – in the order of at least 80 per cent – before 2050, conditional on China doing so after 2050.

As ambitious as it may seem, an international agreement along these lines next year or beyond is a credible goal for two reasons: first, because China has a long-term financial interest in collaborating with the West; and second, because China has a good track record in delivering on advanced technology projects and sticking to international agreements.

For those of us who believe that global warming is the greatest danger to humanity in the 21st century, it is to be hoped that all countries will show the ambition and imagination needed to move nearer towards a comprehensive deal. With the urgency to act growing, we simply cannot afford to see the shambles of Copenhagen repeated in Cancun and beyond.

The writer, a member of Britain’s House of Lords, is visiting professor at Delft University and former director-general of Britain’s Met Office, the country’s national weather service.

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Filed under: Beijing Consensus, Chinese Model, Climate Change, Domestic Growth, Economics, Environment, Influence, International Relations, Politics, Population, Public Diplomacy, Resources, Straits Times, U.S.

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