3 september 2009

Europe too suspicious of China’s climate change policies

Financial Times blog (Tony Barber) September 3, 2009

According to an opinion poll, more than half of Denmark’s population has little or no confidence that world leaders will strike an agreement on fighting climate change at December’s landmark United Nations summit in Copenhagen. It is just a hunch, but I reckon one impulse behind this pessimism is the widespread European suspicion that China, which recently overtook the US as the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, will play an unconstructive role at the talks.

What if this suspicion is unfounded?

China’s official position is that the US, Europe and other developed regions bear the primary responsibility for cutting emissions. In spite of its rapid economic growth, China regards itself as a relatively poor country that, on a per capita basis, consumes much less energy than the developed world. China had no binding emission targets under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and may well refuse to accept such targets at Copenhagen.

But too few Europeans recognise that China’s leaders know they have a climate change problem and fully intend to deal with it. According to the authoritative International Energy Agency, Chinese carbon emissions from fossil fuels soared by 129 per cent between 1990 and 2005. Coal accounts for 70 per cent of China’s energy consumption and oil for another 20 per cent. As China’s economic growth continues, so will the country’s urbanisation, a process that will greatly increase demand for energy. Curbing emissions is now a national necessity.

China’s leaders certainly do not take kindly to lectures on climate change from politicians in the developed world. However, as Duncan Freeman and Jonathan Holslag argue in a recent paper for the Brussels Institute of Contemporary Chinese Studies, this doesn’t mean the Chinese authorities haven’t given serious thought to the question. For example, the 11th Five Year Plan for 2006-2010 set a target of a 20 per cent cut in energy intensity per unit of gross domestic product by next year.

Under a 2007 initiative, China aims to increase the share of renewable energy in total primary energy consumption to 10 per cent by next year and 15 per cent by 2020. China is often portrayed in Europe as a country so hell-bent on economic growth that it is opening one new power plant every week. Less well-known is that China operates a shutdown programme that in recent years has closed more than 7,000 small and inefficient power stations.

As in Europe, Chinese leaders are trying to use their fiscal stimulus, adopted to tackle the global financial crisis and recession, as an opportunity to put a “green” accent on industrial policies. According to analysts at HSBC bank, about 38 per cent of China’s package is “green”, covering investments in railways, power grids, the environment and energy efficiency.

The European Union, which adopted a widely publicised climate change plan in December 2008, likes to portray itself as the world leader in the field. Increasingly, however, what distinguishes the EU from China is method, not content. The Europeans, multilateralists by instinct, like to set things down in binding international agreements. China, notoriously prickly about its sovereignty, is less keen on this approach.

But this doesn’t mean China isn’t determined to fight climate change. It just means China’s policies will be driven by domestic considerations rather than international pressure.

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