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.

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.

China is in no mood to have its own long-awaited development curtailed.

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 muchcarbon 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.

Premier Wen Jiabao says developed countries ‘should alter their unsustainable lifestyle.’

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 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:

  • Adopted a National Climate Change Program — the first such plan adopted by a developing country — that addresses such areas as energy efficiency, renewable energy, nuclear power, forestry, and the development of technology, with specific aspirational targets.
  • Established an ambitious target in its last Five Year Plan to reduce energy intensity per unit of GDP. China’s economy is almost nine times less energy efficient than Japan’s and almost five times less efficient than the U.S.’s.
  • Embraced renewable energy, with 17 percent of its electricity already generated from hydropower, solar, and wind.
  • Initiated hundreds of hydro projects, making China the world’s leader in dam-generated power.
  • Set fuel economy standards in 2008 requiring new vehicles to average 36.7 miles-per-gallon. (Those recently implemented by the Obama administration only require 35.5 mpg).
  • Appropriated 7 billion rmb as part of its new economic stimulus package to subsidize Chinese willing to trade old, inefficient cars for new, more efficient models and to upgrade from older, less energy-efficienct home appliances.

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.”