Thursday, 24 September 2009

Climate change Thursday #9

China (not) in your hand

Some leapt for joy, others were less impressed but the moment of this week's UN Conference on Climate Change was clearly President Hu Jintao of China's speech.

The Telegraph found it underwhelming. The Guardian thought it very significant.

Nicholas Stern was full of warm praise for China and also India as he sees that they have moved on significantly and will reduce their carbon emissions by a greater amount than almost anyone else compared with trend (perhaps....) To suggest that China and India are leading the way is, to put it mildly, over-egging the pudding somewhat. The rhetoric from China was indeed significant but it has been creeping in this direction for some time.

Of course, the US, despite the commitment from President Obama, is both the real culprit and the real villain when it comes to climate change. Europe has embraced its responsibility to significantly cut its carbon emissions and now it would seem so is Japan. Friends of the Earth was right that President Obama's speech was a disappointment. But his hands are tied.

This is the real issue with China and why it is not playing a leading role as Nicholas Stern suggests. Unless it commits to some measurable target of carbon intensity reduction to begin with and then declare a commitment to actually cut its emissions within, say, a decade then Congress will have an excuse not to act. If they are genuinely planning the cuts then they should commit to them. That will enable President Obama to more forcibly demand action from Congress. This game of playing hard to get that China is playing benefits absolutely no-one.

There is an attitude in the US that China doesn't play by the rules. It had exactly the same attitude towards Japan in the past. See the recent decision to take action against Chinese tyre imports. It is part of the mindset that China is a free-rider. If China fails to agree to actual targets then suspicions will be raised and the US will have an excuse not to act.

Can all this be resolved by December? Possibly. However, even it is not December is the beginning not the end of a process. There does need to be a seizing of the moment while international attention is on this issue so there is no better time for China, India and the US to make meaningful commitments.

What is important is that whatever happens in Copenhagen, there is an understanding that this is just one staging post on a long and grueling road. There is a good piece in this month's edition of Foreign Affairs by Michael Levi- Copenhagen's Inconvenient Truth (subscribers only)- that makes this precise point. I don't think we should let China off the hook just because Copenhagen marks the beginning of a process rather than its end-point and Levi seems to suggest that we should be willing to do so. But the characterisation of Copenhagen as a WTO-style process rather than a one-off treaty is useful.

What this week has shown is how far there is still to travel. I'm more towards the Telegraph's scepticism than the Guardian/ Stern's praise for China. In fact, I don't think that the US, China, or India get even close to a five out of ten for their performance this week.

Not good enough.....but there is still time. Just.

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