"China will not continue growing emissions without limit or insist that all nations must have the same per-capita emissions. If we did that, this earth would be ruined." This remark, made by Su Wei, director general of the National Development and Reform Commission’s (NDRC) climate change office, to the Financial Times, represented an interesting break with China’s past position on this contentious issue.
Su’s plain speaking – and commitment to a deadline of 2050 for the reduction of China’s emissions – stood out even more in the light of the international diplomatic posturing that is fueling news cycles in the run-up to December’s global climate change talks in Copenhagen.
We have argued before that China’s rising global influence will require it to take a more active role in international agreements. That is not simply because the country’s geographical, economic and political clout makes any global agreement that excludes it meaningless, but because these agreements are in China’s own best interests.
So do Su’s remarks amount to a step in this process? Are we seeing a flexibility in China’s climate change rhetoric, which in turn reflects a more mature view of the nation’s place in the world?
As encouraging as this change in tone – and the publication of the 2050 China Energy and CO2 Emissions Report by the NDRC and the State Council’s Development Research Center – may be, it does not amount to a change in policy.
Su himself made this quite clear by restating Beijing’s position on emissions caps. In May, the NDRC released a report outlining China’s position in the lead-up to Copenhagen, in which it highlighted a principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities" in fighting climate change. These would involve the use of "nationally appropriate mitigation actions" that would be "distinct from international legally binding commitments of developed countries." In other words, developing countries like China would be exempt from binding emissions targets.
China also continues to place the burden on developed countries to assist developing countries in their emissions reductions through financial support and technology transfers.
Whatever small victories there may be, such as new rules requiring local governments to consider climate change initiatives in their planning, and Premier Wen Jiabao’s statement that emissions reduction targets would appear in national development programs, they are dwarfed by big picture realities.
China is set to attend Copenhagen, like most other countries, in an overwhelmingly self-serving role. That is not surprising, but it is a shame.