Former US President Bill Clinton’s philanthropic brainchild, the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), has been running in Hong Kong this week For all the tub-thumping about combating climate change, you have to wonder who is willing to put their money where their mouth is during these tough economic times.
The China representatives in the opening plenary session were Yang Jiechi, China’s foreign minister, and Victor Fung, chairman of Li & Fung Group, the trading company/supply chain manager.
Clinton noted that China has come a long way since the Kyoto Protocol was first adopted 10 years ago against a backdrop of Chinese suspicion that this was “some plot by the developed countries to slow down the development of China and other developed countries.”
Yang’s initial speech was much what you’d expect from a government official, peppered with references to China’s “peaceful rise” and its commitment to environment causes despite being a developing nation with low per capita emissions. In the subsequent panel discussion, there were further nods to Beijing’s plans to cut energy intensity and emissions, and an acknowledgment that much still needs to be done.
Points for effort are not enough for Clinton, however.
“What I think we need more of is not just good intentions, but an understanding of how to do this in an economically beneficial way,” he said. “We have to make this a user friendly and economically beneficial thing.”
To be fair to Yang, it wasn’t the time – and he doesn’t have the authority – to unveil new environmental initiatives. If there were something new in the pipeline, Beijing would make the announcement on its own stage.
What’s more, none of the other panelists came up with anything more concrete than empowering the private sector. (For his part, Fung believes the solution will come from the market itself as consumers with growing social consciences based purchasing decisions on production conditions as much as on price.)
The most sobering assessment came from Lee Kwan Yew, Singapore’s minister mentor and former prime minister, who had a dialogue with Clinton during the afternoon session of the conference. Whatever you make of how Lee and his acolytes run the city state, there is no denying he still has a sharp mind despite his advancing years.
Invited by Clinton to talk up Singapore’s private sector solar initiatives, Lee instead chose to put them in context: “Solar energy can never replace carbon fuels. The only thing that could replace carbon fuels is nuclear [energy].”
There won’t be another CGI meeting in Asia for at least as long as Hillary Clinton is US Secretary of State (in order to avoid conflicts of interest). For all the financial pledges made over the last two days, the big environmental questions remain unanswered. The most interesting panel discussion was Wednesday morning’s debate on coping with the financial crisis, which says it all about where people’s heads are right now.
CGI in brief…
It’s unusual to hear a Chinese government minister voluntarily talk about Tibet, but this is what Yang Jiechi did when he praised Beijing’s efforts to improve the environment and raise living standards in the western region. The atmosphere in the room went decidedly chilly for a moment – and there were a couple of hisses from the audience – when Yang made the remark.
Yang’s clean air anecdote. “Some athletes were hesitant about coming to Beijing [for the Olympics] because of the air quality. I said please come because you will be able to break more world records in Beijing than anywhere else. And more records were broken in the Olympics than anywhere else.” He didn’t specify how many of these records were broken indoors.
Lou Jiwei, chairman and CEO of China Investment Corporation, on why he’s not so keen on buying stakes in Western banks: “Right now we do not have the courage to invest in financial institutions because we don’t know what problems this will put us in … Many of these institutions have a very high credit rating but still you are too afraid to make investments because the business can be taken away by the government. So I don’t have confidence. Where will this confidence come from? It should come from government policy. If this policy is changing every week how can I feel confident? We need guarantees.”