With the Copenhagen climate change summit barely two weeks away, the principal actors are jockeying for position on the stage. As far as China is concerned, this involves resolutely defending its stance – the developed world commits to emissions cuts while transferring technology that will enable the developing world to do the same, by some unspecified point – in the face of calls for compromise from overseas.
The disparaging comments made by Yu Qingtai, China’s top climate envoy, regarding Europe’s track record on climate change commitments, should be seen in this context. “Europe made a lot of commitments. But if you compare these commitments to actions, there is a big disparity,” Yu said. One might roughly translate that as: How can you ask us to agree to emissions cuts that we don’t think are realistic, when you can’t meet your own commitments on climate change (which are more realistic)?
The commitments Yu is referring to don’t relate to emissions cuts per se. The EU has been the chief proponent of the Kyoto Protocol and it has committed to reducing carbon emissions by 20% on 1990 levels before 2020. This could rise to 30% if the rest of the world agrees to play ball on climate change. What the EU hasn’t done, in China’s view, is meet the technology transfer requirements set out in the Kyoto Protocol. Beijing wanted some kind of framework agreement for the wholesale transfer of technology whereas the developed world endorsed a more commercial mechanism driven by the private sector. What emerged was the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) – Beijing detests it and no one else is entirely happy with it. (For more on this, read the November issue of China Economic Review.)
When Zhang Zhijun, China’s vice foreign minister, said on Tuesday that the EU and China should “have closer cooperation on climate change because it serves the common interest of both sides,” he was reiterating the government line: if you want us to cut emissions you must provide the technology and support to help us do it. The EU and the US are willing to do this, but they want more for their money than the energy intensity cuts that China has already put in place and the carbon intensity cuts that are likely to follow. Neither of these targets ties China to any schedule for cutting emissions.
If an agreement comes out of Copenhagen, it will be a compromise deal that is – at best – a stepping stone to a more substantive pact. (Most countries are aiming at the bottom end of the 2020 target for a 25-40% cut in emissions on 1990 levels set out in the draft agreement for the summit). The environment, as far as this summit is concerned, is a political issue and good politics is all about being seen to make accommodations.
China can argue, justifiably, that its developmental position makes it very difficult to commit to emissions cuts (the twin forces of urbanization and industrialization are compelling reasons for the continued rise of carbon emissions). It can also point to the substantial policies and funding it is directing at clean energy. But Beijing’s strongest card going into Copenhagen was the fact that the US was still hamstrung on climate change. If, as reports suggest, Barack Obama turns up in two weeks with a suitably conciliatory attitude and a pledge to cut emissions by 17% before 2020 (below the recommended target, but it was only recently that Obama ruled out any Copenhagen agreement, so he’s playing the expectation game well), then the momentum may switch to him.
China could find itself under renewed pressure to be more compromising than Yu Qingtai’s comments suggest it wants to be.