21 October 2018
China is now the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Photo: Bloomberg
China is now the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Photo: Bloomberg

China and US aim for climate pact in 2015

Five years after the global climate change summit in Copenhagen, when the United States and China failed to reach a binding agreement, the situation has improved though much remains to be done if the world is to reach an accord in Paris next year to replace the Kyoto Protocol.

Much is at stake, not only in dollars and cents but in human lives as well. The developed countries have pledged to provide US$100 billion a year in aid to developing countries by 2020 but, so far, little if anything has been contributed to the Green Climate Fund set up by the United Nations.

Climate change, in the form of weird natural phenomena, is already happening. A joint statement issued during Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to Britain last week, in which the two countries agreed to cooperate on the issue, said: “The odds of extreme weather events, which threaten lives and property, have increased. Sea levels are rising, and ice is melting.”

This accord came four months after the US and China issued a statement agreeing to work closely together to combat climate change. These two agreements reflect a new attitude by Beijing to work with developed countries rather than aligning itself with the world’s poorest countries against the western world.

To a large extent, this reflects China’s changing status. In 1990 – just two years before the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was adopted in Rio de Janeiro – America emitted almost 500 percent more carbon dioxide than did China. Today, China is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

Because their interests are increasingly similar, China and the US have in recent months agreed to cooperate, including the sharing of information. Last year, they set up a joint climate change working group and agreed on such things as cutting emissions from heavy-duty vehicles and designing energy-efficient buildings.

China suffers from severe air, water and soil pollution and is now taking steps to protect the environment, including strengthening its environmental protection law.

The Financial Times recently quoted China’s chief climate negotiator, Xie Zhenhua, as saying that China and the US are building a new bilateral relationship. “We should be confident that the Paris meeting will not be another Copenhagen,” Xie said.

Meanwhile, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called for a climate change summit in New York in September, before the General Assembly convenes, to mobilize support for action at the highest levels. This will be followed in December with a conference in Lima, to be hosted by the Peruvian government.

But already all eyes are on the Paris conference scheduled for December 2015 and the hope is that agreement will be reached on a binding, fair, global agreement that will limit global warming to two degrees centigrade, widely believed to be the threshold for catastrophic climate change.

The problem is that the UNFCCC in 1992 decided that countries have “common but differentiated responsibilities” and that developed countries “should take the lead in combating climate change”. 

This reflected the responsibility of developed countries, which historically emitted the greatest amount of greenhouse gases, and also allowed other countries a chance to develop.

Since then, China has insisted that, as a developing country, it was exempt from mandatory emissions caps, although it was willing to voluntarily assume certainly responsibilities.

China acknowledges that it is now the biggest polluter. But even though it is the second largest economy, it is still a poor country and so the Kyoto rules should continue to apply.

Zhou Shengxian, China’s minister of environmental protection, wrote in the China Daily on Friday last week that China and other developing countries should “implement sustainable development strategies based on national realities” while developed countries should “fulfill their commitments by changing unsustainable patterns of production and consumption”.

If that continues to be China’s stance, then the outlook for a successful outcome in Paris is dim since the US Congress certainly won’t endorse any climate treaty where Beijing is exempt from obligations that Washington has to assume.

This is especially true because, as China continues to grow, it will overtake the US as the largest emitter in cumulative historical terms.

But Beijing will still have a trump card up its sleeve. In per capita terms, Chinese emissions would still trail American ones, and mandatory emission caps mean that Chinese may never achieve the lifestyle Americans enjoy today.

That may well be true. But earth is a lifeboat with a limited capacity and unless all the passengers agree to accept sustainable lifestyles, no one will be safe.

The writer is a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.

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