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Rising China at Copenhagen

Simi Thambi is an Intern at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • January 05, 2010

    Twenty years ago, China was East Asia's largest oil exporter. Today, it is the world's second-largest importer. Now that China is the workshop of the world, its hunger for electricity and industrial resources has soared. Beijing's access to foreign resources is necessary both for continued economic growth and for the survival of the Chinese Communist Party. Thus, an unprecedented need for resources is now driving China's foreign policy. After three decades of near two-digit economic growth till 2009, China still has immense developmental needs, given that almost half of China’s estimated 1.3 billion citizens still live on less than $2 (PPP) a day. There is no doubting China’s justifiable right to development. But development is dependent on growth and growth is fuelled by energy which leads to green house gas emissions and sustainability problems. China faces a trade off between energy efficiency and growth.

    Until recently China had pursued an inflexible stance with respect to climate change negotiations. Chinese negotiators argued along with the G-77 countries that it is unfair to compare among different countries ignoring their size in terms of population, China alone makes up one-fifth of the world's population and the per capita emission in China was low compared to the emission in the industrialized world. The PRC’s negotiators argued that China’s share of the global CO2 emissions that have accumulated in the atmosphere over the last 100 years is a mere 8 percent, whereas the industrial nations, whose greenhouse gas emissions have been building up for more than a century, bear the historical responsibility for climate change, a fact that should be borne in mind at climate negotiations. They also argued that approximately a quarter of the emission currently caused by China originate from the production of goods destined for export (Carbon leakage or Surrogate Emissions).

    Over time the Communist party has realized the adverse impact that climate change can cause not only in terms of its large ecological impact but even greater negative economic repercussions on agriculture, a great threat for a rapidly growing China. Therefore, China was one of the nations that signed the agreement in June 1992 at the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change in Brazil. It ratified the convention in December 1992. China signed the Kyoto Protocol on 29 May 1998 and ratified it formally on 30 August 2002. As a non-Annex I country, China does not have any quantitative obligations to reduce its emissions in line with the Kyoto Protocol; all it has to do is report on its emissions in a national communication, stating the steps it is taking in order to implement the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It participates in projects under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). (An instrument of the Kyoto Protocol which entails Annex I countries conducting greenhouse gas reduction projects in non-Annex I countries)

    In November 2009 Chinese President Hu Jintao and his American counterpart Barack Obama agreed that a pact is necessary at Copenhagen and, that it should include binding emission cuts for developed nations and “nationally appropriate” emission cuts for others. However it seemed more of rhetoric on the part of the United States given that the US Congress had not cleared ACES (American Clean Energy Security Act) 2009. At COP 15, as expected by some, there was an absolute lack of consensus among the leaders, the outcome “Copenhagen Accord” being the product of personal negotiations between Obama and the political leaders of BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India and China). The accord promises a mobilization of $ 100 billion in annual funding for developing countries to meet the challenges of climate change from 2020 and also pledges about $ 30 billion by 2012 but has no deadline for the finalization of the negotiations and no figures for emission reduction targets by developed nations by 2020. The birth of BASIC and decline of G-77 is expected to provide strength for rapidly developing counties like China and India to pursue their cases together.

    Nonetheless, it is too early to judge the success of the COP15 as results will only be seen if the leading nations match their words with actions. Many including AOSIS (Association of Small Island States) argue that China’s commitment to emission cuts is not ambitious enough and does not transcend the BAU (Business As Usual) scenario. As for China, while no doubt climate change is moving up on the political agenda, it is unlikely that it will agree to any climate mitigation action that compromise the national targets of sustaining economic growth, maintaining social stability and alleviating poverty as was reiterated by Chinese Ambassador to India Zhang Yang prior to COP15. However the fact remains that as China speaks in louder voice by portraying itself as a responsible stakeholder, more will be expected of China on the environmental front as well.

    Given the divergence of views in the industrialized and industrializing countries as was demonstrated at Copenhagen, it is too early to expect any comprehensive result from the Copenhagen Accord. One needs to wait till June 2010 if the UN meeting at Bonn will yield a different outcome.