08 Jun 2009: Opinion

The Challenge of Copenhagen:
Bridging the U.S.-China Divide

The United States powered its rise to affluence with fossil fuels, and China resents being told it should not be free to do the same. So as negotiators prepare for crucial climate talks this December, the prospects for reaching agreement remain far from certain.

by orville schell

Flying from Beijing to Copenhagen, where I recently went to attend the World Business Summit on Climate Change, is to pass from one end of the greenhouse gas emissions spectrum to the other and — figuratively speaking — from one world to another.

One moves from a city still possessed by an urgent need to impress the world with its admittedly impressive pace of economic growth, passionately in love with all the affectations of modernity, and intoxicated with the very notion of development, to a city with little to prove to the world and that seems serenely comfortable with its current state of development, global status, and sublime smallness.

In the differences between these two utterly dissimilar cities lays the enormous challenge that will confront the global community this December in Copenhagen as it meets to find agreement on how much
China is in no mood to have its own long-awaited development curtailed.
carbon dioxide each nation will be permitted to emit into our common atmosphere. At the upcoming U.N. Climate Change Conference – scheduled for Dec. 7-18 – the abyss must be crossed between the developed countries, whose industrialization is now largely behind them, and developing countries like China, which are still trying to find their rightful place in the sun.

Until now, the key missing players in this increasingly urgent drama of negotiation have been the two great powers that personify this chasm in development — the United States and China. Without these two countries in the climate change game, there is, in effect, no game at all, and Copenhagen cannot succeed.

As Todd D. Stern, the top U.S. climate negotiator, said as he arrived in Beijing this weekend for high-level talks, “Certainly no deal will be possible if we don't find a way forward with China.”

Yet closing the gap between the two nations is a huge challenge. China is in no mood to have its own long-awaited development curtailed in order to compensate for the burden of the greenhouse gases already emitted by developed nations during their industrialization. The Chinese come to Copenhagen with expectations that developed countries, especially America, will offer cuts in greenhouse gases that far surpass anything the industrialized world is likely to offer.

Meanwhile, the United States expects China — now the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases — to agree to some limits on its carbon dioxide emissions, which doubled from 1996 to 2006.

This gap is not entirely unbridgeable. The Obama Administration is now putting together an impressive team of climate officials to correct America’s long truancy from the global climate discussion. The U.S. Congress is also at work on legislation that, if it does not get too watered down by industry lobbying, will go a long way to putting the U.S. back into the game. And the Chinese government has launched an impressive range of programs to promote renewable energy and energy efficiency in its superheated economy.

If Beijing and China represent the planet’s highest expression of yearning to project developmental prowess, Copenhagen and Denmark are one of its lowest expressions, a place so content with its more modest — but nonetheless significant — accomplishments that it seems devoid of any impulse to puff itself up with pretension, much less to write itself grandly in the firmament of those less self-assured nations still striving to dazzle the world with their new wealth and power.

Instead of the towering skyscrapers sheathed in neon billboards and football-field-size video screens that soar into the murky Beijing sky, Copenhagen boasts only the spires of its churches and municipal buildings probing clear skies over canals and lakes filled with water so clean you can see the bottom. Rather than building coal-fired power plants, Denmark is a country that has already succeeded in having some 20 percent of its electrical power generated by wind, thanks largely to the giant Danish wind-power company, Vestas, which now employs some 20,000 people in 62 countries.

Copenhagen seems largely at peace with itself — except, that is, for the Danes’ unquenchable Lutheran thirst for setting the world aright, which manifests itself these days in areas like climate change. This makes Copenhagen the perfect city to host this December’s grand, post-Kyoto climate council, known as Cop 15 — for Conference of the Parties number 15.

In assessing what China has already done in response to the threat of climate change and what it will bring to the table in Copenhagen, it is important to remember that even though China’s annual aggregate emissions have now surpassed those of the U.S., China’s energy-related per capita emissions are still 4.5 times less than the U.S. average. And while China has only contributed 8 percent of the world’s historic carbon burden, the U.S. has contributed a whopping 29 percent.

And so for the foreseeable future, China will most certainly continue to eschew accepting any “defined limits” or carbon caps, insisting instead on hewing to the U.N. principle of “common but differentiated” responses and
Premier Wen Jiabao says developed countries ‘should alter their unsustainable lifestyle.’
responsibilities. But what China will finally be willing to put on the table in Copenhagen will be conditioned to a significant extent by what the developed world itself is willing to commit to in advance of the conference. For if there is one thing China’s leaders have tirelessly repeated, it is that they expect the developed world — and especially America — to take the lead in this daunting global challenge.

As British economist and author of the “Stern Report,” Nicholas Stern, recently noted, “We really have to show developing countries – those of us who live in the rich world – that we ourselves mean business, that we’re not just asking them to do things, and not doing things ourselves.”

In a position paper released at the end of May by the National Development and Reform Commission, which Chinese leaders have tasked with leading the climate change negotiations, Beijing pointedly called for developed countries to “take responsibility for their historical cumulative emissions and current high per capita emissions to change their unsustainable way of life and to substantially reduce their emissions.”

The document also noted that China’s aggregate greenhouse gas emissions will almost certainly keep increasing until 2035, reaching 5.5 billion tons by 2010 and 8.8 billion tons by 2035, when they would stabilize for the next 15 years, before finally beginning to taper off in 2050.

Despite this laggard performance, the paper also demanded that developed countries not only commit to giving up to one percent of their annual economic worth to developing nations to help them curb climate change, but also cut their own greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.

The U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change, Todd Stern, who will himself visit Beijing the second week of June, lost no time in bluntly rejoining, “The 40 percent that the Chinese have talked about is not realistic.”

The European Union has agreed to slash only 20 percent and up the ante to 30 percent, if other developed countries agree to equally ambitious levels. But the “Clean Energy and Security Act,” which has just passed out of committee in the U.S. House of Representatives, only obliges the U.S. to meet a 17 percent cut.

Officials in Beijing have evolved considerably over the last few years in terms of recognizing the serious consequences of climate change in China, including the risks of increased drought in the North; flooding in the South; melting glaciers and thawing permafrost on the Tibetan Plateau; increased desertification; and aberrant weather patterns throughout China. But Chinese leaders still steadfastly hold that since the West is primarily responsible for the problem, it must bear most of the costs of remedy.

Even Premier Wen Jiabao has weighed in on the issue, noting that developed countries “should alter their unsustainable lifestyle.”

What, then has the Chinese Government done, and what is it proposing to do, to address climate change?

Quite a lot, it turns out.

The Chinese government has:

These efforts are far more substantial than most outsiders realize. But unless China’s negotiators arrive in Copenhagen with targets and goals that are more concrete, it is far from certain that they will be viewed by developed countries as committed partners. That is particularly true of the Obama administration and the U.S. Congress, which must ultimately approve any treaty.

After visiting China with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in May, U.S. Rep F. James Sensenbrenner, ranking Republican on the House Select Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming, returned to Washington less than hopeful about what he had heard in Beijing. “The message I received was that China was going to do it their way regardless of what the rest of the world negotiates in Copenhagen,” he said.

The reality is that, even if the U.S. and Europe did accept a 20 percent reduction of 1990 emission levels by 2020 — which in Washington’s case is not likely — there is no way that global warming’s seemingly ineluctable upward trajectory will be arrested anytime soon without a commitment by China to begin to reduce its own aggregate levels; China’s growing share of greenhouse emissions is simply too large.

While China is aware of this global dilemma, it feels far more pressed by the realities of its own domestic imperatives than the global climate crisis.
Global warming will not be arrested without a commitment by China to reduce its emissions.
What leaders in Beijing fear is that any strong Chinese effort to limit greenhouse emissions could compromise China’s economy, which could in turn lead to unemployment and social and political instability. So much of the Communist Party’s political legitimacy has come to be based on delivering economic success, that if the choice is between domestic instability and global warming, Party leaders will invariably lean towards the former.

It remains to be seen whether China can be induced into greater flexibility in Copenhagen by deals involving the transfer of money for “carbon offsets,” or technology transfer involving carbon capture and sequestration, energy efficiency, or synthetic fuels.

What the Chinese have not yet fully appreciated is that the world now finds itself in a new commons where old-fashioned notions of absolute sovereignty, national interest, and strict-constructionist apportionment of past blame are no longer helpful in finding solutions. Like it or not, we have become our brothers’ keepers, and we will not find a common solution without a new flexibility and pragmatism.

Although governments are now posturing and jousting over how to divide responsibility for the problem as we head towards Copenhagen, there are an enormous number of intelligent, highly-motivated people and practical activity within and around the Obama Administration. There has also been a surge of activity between both U.S. and Chinese governmental agencies, as well as among environmental groups, businesses, and think tanks. What has been missing is some galvanic force, perhaps a Special Emissary for U.S.-China Climate Issues appointed by the President or Secretary of State — someone who could serve as the go-to person and thus be capable of bringing it all together into a more unified policy.

When asked as he left Beijing last month whether he still thought an accord could be reached, U.S. Rep. Edward Markey — co-author of the climate bill making its way through Congress — was tentative.

“This,” he said, “is going to be one of the most complex diplomatic negotiations in the history of the world.”

POSTED ON 08 Jun 2009 IN Climate Climate Policy & Politics Policy & Politics Science & Technology Asia North America 


"What leaders in Beijing fear is that any strong Chinese effort to limit greenhouse emissions could compromise China’s economy, which could in turn lead to unemployment and social and political instability."

These leaders could change their perspective by realizing that clean, renewable energy efficient development will encourage employment and promote stability. This would be especially so if people saw honest efforts to promote the health of national and global commonwealth through actions of integrity. If China matured in this way they would rise to geopolitical moral parity exceeded by none.
Posted by James Newberry on 08 Jun 2009

The answer is really simple. You show the Chinese rep a draft of future trade legislation which imposes a hefty tax (say 500 percent) on all products originating from countries that do not agree to cut CO2 output by 20 percent within the next 20 years.

You have to play hard ball. Trade is the lifeblood of their economy. Fix that and the problem will be solved.
Posted by Bob on 10 Jun 2009

Please note the need for greater precision when comparing emission reduction targets.

The EU has committed to a 20 percent reduction BELOW 1990 LEVELS by 2020.

The Waxman-Markey bill now making its way through Congress targets a 17 percent reduction BELOW 2005 LEVELS by 2020. On an apples-to-apples basis, that is really 4 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.

Posted by David Sassoon, SolveClimate on 11 Jun 2009

More of a question than a comment. I wonder to what degree there is found among China's scientific community the debate I see here in the U.S. about the linkage between warming and greenhouse gases. Does China have its Freeman Dyson?
Posted by Steve Wells on 11 Jun 2009

As the author pointed out, China is now in a very difficult situation of which way to go. The right scenario is to follow the path that the US probably will take a leading position. The left one is to continue develop the economy with carbon intensive fuel, especially coal. The right obviously will weaken the competitive advantage of Chinese economy in a global view. In the direction of right, there are thousands of "win-win" hypothese boasted by politicians, economists and other stakeholders. But, don't forget the truth is many times stands with a few alert people, who were and are called "heretics".

I am just wondering why not many scientists stand up to advocate the fad of Global Warming or Climate Change. As a heavily cited special report on Global Warming, "Stern Report " solely relied on IPCC's report on Global Warming. As many people scoffed economics is a decimal science due to its thousands of assumptions, if not millions, many assumptions in "Stern Sport" are also built on IPCC's report on Global Warming. What if IPCC's report is wrong? Or what if the report is exaggerated?

Until now, there are only few different voices doubt it and unfortunately they are frustrated by the so-called "precaution principle" or just be blamed emotionally by "majority scientists", politicians, medias and environmentalists. One point is clear that many of Mr Freenman Dyson's doubt are not well explained by "majority scientists", actually Mr. Dyson is not along, there are quite a few "Dyson"s who have publicly doubt the whole theory of Global Warming. Sadly, this is a world full of interest groups. The worst is these groups now stand behind the fantasy of Global Warming. As this is a rational world, people always response to the motives. So what are their motives? Are they care about our common environment? No! What they are really looking for is a beautiful proxy to save themselves from the mire.

As a Chinese, I do not think our country is trying to dodge our responsibility to the global environment. But, my question is shall we follow the path that is deliberately designed by some interest groups? I have to remind those finger pointers that China is still a poor country in term of average living standard. The political system and economy are not well aligning at the moment. There are many problems need the central government to tackle. Global Warming is true, Climate Change is there, but don't you think that billions tons of human made CO2 is the real cause of Global Warming? Then, what do you say to those couple billion tons of CO2 released by the nature?

Both the right and the left scenarios are not sound solutions for China and hundreds of other developing countries, what China and these developing countries shall to follow is a middle way, the one gradually shifts the energy demand from the unsustainable fossil fuels to a energy portfolio which includes all sort of energy whichever is the most cost-efficient way to improve the living standard of people. As the truth always lies between extremes, this middle way is likely the one meets the need of people, environment and economy.
Posted by Feng Wang on 14 Jun 2009

Though I can understand that China's contribution is critical to arresting the global warming problem, their perspective is right too. US indeed has exploited more than its fair share of natural resources, if we define fair share as % of population on earth. Now that China's economy is growing and truthfully most of their economy is exporting goods to US only, its hard to explain to China why they need to curtail their growth for the common good.
Posted by Amy on 12 Aug 2009

Per capital greenhouse gas emissions, We, as American, stayed at the top three position. We have long way to go to get down to the No. 45 position the Chinese did for the many years past, despite of continue industrialization and developement, has been able to do. This largely due to the continuous Chinese people and in the Alternative Energy share of the industrilization. I hope some day we can say the same that we are keeping pace with the Chinese in our effort to forstall, keeping low the poduction and effect of the greenlhouse gas emissions.

Posted by HJC on 01 Jun 2010

Comments have been closed on this feature.
orville schellABOUT THE AUTHOR
Orville Schell is the director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society and the primary editor of "A Roadmap for U.S.-China Cooperation on Climate and Energy" published by the Asia Society and the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. He has written previously for Yale Environment 360 about ways the U.S. and China can work together to tackle climate change.



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