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China’s Climate Change Policy- Domestic and Global Implications

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) deserves full credit for its pro-active approach towards combating global warming and climate change. In the ensuing paragraphs, an attempt has been made to analyse the features of China’s climate change policy in detail, especially in the contexts of history, implementation and perceptional differences. The policy’s domestic and global implications have been assessed in the end, to stimulate further discussions on the subject.

Climate change was not a major issue for the PRC in 1960s and 1970s. Only in the first decade of the new century, the PRC leadership could face the fact that the country’s post – 1978 industrial development had been depending, rather excessively, on carbon intensive resources, making China the biggest emitter of CO2 in the world, surpassing the level of the US (2006- 5664 MT and 2007-5664 MT, as per China National Bureau of Statistics). Priority was accordingly given to formation of much needed official structure to deal with the phenomenon and formulation of a theoretical foundation for China’s climate change policy. The setting up of an inter-ministerial committee, called ‘National Climate Change Coordination Leading group’, led by the Government’s National Development and Reforms Commission (NDRC) in 2003, was an important step. The Group together with the PRC Foreign Ministry is since playing a significant role in ensuring that China’s commitments on climate change do not clash with the overall interests of development and energy security, both domestically and externally. Also significant has been the issue of first government white paper on climate change (29 October 2008), providing a policy response to the emerging national and international climate challenges.

The PRC’s climate change policy rests on four pillars – (1) the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) and (2) Kyoto Protocol (KP) both of which ‘embody the consensus of international community’, (3) the Bali Road Map meant to ‘implement the lines of UNFCC and KP’ and (4) the principle of ‘Common But Differentiated Responsibilities’.[1] The last mentioned is crucial to understand the PRC’s point of view, which fixes responsibility for climate change on the developed nations. Beijing has declared that the ‘developed countries should take responsibility for their historical cumulative emissions and current high per capita emissions and should reduce their emissions, along with providing financial support and transferring technologies to the developing countries’. Under the principle, the responsibilities of the developing nations have also come under definition; as Beijing sees, the developing countries while pursuing economic development and poverty eradication, must take proactive measures to adapt to and mitigate climate change.[2]

At policy implementation levels, the unfolding China’s plans towards promoting energy efficiency and low-carbon energy technologies are to be noted. The PRC’s declared objective is to reduce energy intensity (ratio of energy intensity to GDP) in the country by 20% at the end of the 11th Five Year Plan (2006-2010), through launching energy efficiency programmes and industrial restructuring projects. In the 12th Five Year Plan period (2011-2015), reducing ‘carbon intensity’ occupies primary place; the substitution of the term ‘energy intensity’ by ‘carbon intensity’, looks significant in the context of China’s announced goal to lower CO2 emissions per unit of GDP in the range of 40 to 45% by 2020, as compared with 2005 levels and the ongoing programme to develop low carbon energy sources like nuclear and hydropower and renewable sources like wind and solar.[3]

Internationally, it looks clear that China’s climate change policy requiring rich nations to take responsibility for global emissions and mitigation and similar views of developing nations like India, are creating conditions for a conflict between the developed and developing world. Confirming the same have been the position paper put forward by developing nations like China, India, Brazil and South Africa during the Copenhagen climate change talks (December 7 –18,2009), urging the developed powers to fulfil their obligations and commitments. In such a situation, it was not surprising that the accord reached at Copenhagen turned out to be not legally binding on any nation; it mentioned about limiting the global temperature increases to below 2 degree C., but did not say how. It announced US $100 billion in aid a year to developing nations till 2020, but leaving the specifics to be worked out in 2010.

It is essential to recognise that the perceptions of the PRC and developed nations like the US on how to mitigate climate change differ much in substance. Firstly, Beijing is against any proposal for conducting international verification of its efforts to cut down the level of Green House Gas emissions, on the plea that it would violate China’s sovereignty. This issue was the biggest bone of contention at Copenhagen. Secondly, the PRC is opposing mandatory emission caps for any country; in December 2007, its white paper on energy situation had underlined China’s position of not accepting any legally binding Green House Gas emission targets, in a stand apparently based on fears that such targets will not be conducive to the country’s economic growth. The same position was firmly conveyed by China at Copenhagen, by demanding that the accord being discussed should not include numbers for emission targets. Next, Beijing stands for treating the Kyoto Protocol as the building block for an international accord on climate change, whereas the US and other rich powers seem to prefer a new treaty in place of Kyoto Protocol. Lastly, while the PRC considers all UN texts on climate change as foundation for a global agreement, the developed countries appear to hold a narrow view of treating the Copenhagen accord as sufficient enough for the same purpose.

While maintaining a tough position vis-à-vis the developed world at global conferences like one held at Copenhagen, China is giving signals that it is not averse to collaborating with other nations on climate change bilaterally. Catching attention first in this regard is the agreement reached between the PRC and India in October 2009 to jointly fight climate change and coordinate positions on international climate deals. The two countries now more or less have identical views on the climate issue – emission cuts would impact on their economic growth. The Indian Minister for Environment and Forests has said that New Delhi and Beijing can leverage their closeness on climate change cooperation for solving their differences on other issues and working together globally. Also deserving attention is the emerging Sino-US cooperation on climate change issue, as part of their ongoing Strategic and Economic Dialogue. In particular, both seem to have realised the importance of bilateral environmental security cooperation; signs of their attention towards joint efforts in disaster preparedness and relief as well as scientific research have appeared of late. The US Office of Naval Research is to conduct research programmes with China on super-conductors and biofuels. [4]

Domestically, a key question for China would be how to lead its economy into a low-carbon growth path. An answer would definitely lie in the PRC’s ability to revamp its industrial system and correct its consumption pattern. This may take some time and in the mid-term, the scenario will remain more or less the same – rapid energy consumption will continue to drive China’s economic expansion. Overall, development remains the ultimate goal of the PRC; it is intrinsically connected to social stability in the country and the legitimacy of the ruling Chinese Communist Party. China is now the second largest economy in the globe and by 2050; it aims to reach the level of a ‘medium level advanced nation’ in the world. In such a scenario, the PRC is expected per force to maintain a position providing for a permanent balance between emission reductions needs and economic development.

On global implications of China’s climate change policy, it can be said that the chances of reaching a legally binding UN document on climate management, acceptable to all countries, appear remote at the moment. Deep perceptional gaps among the developed and developing nations continue to exist; the next round of talks at Tianxin scheduled in October 2010 and the impending UN climate change conference at Cancun by end the year, are certain to address them. But any over optimism over the outcome of the two events will be misplaced. One thing is however certain- the world’s economic focus is shifting to Asia, which will make the voices of the developing Asian giants like India and China on climate change issue stronger and stronger.

The bottom line therefore is that one should keep fingers crossed, as the world struggles to find a common position on climate change.

(The writer, Mr D.S.Rajan, is the Director of the Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai,India.This formed the basis for the writer’s talk on China’s climate change policy at a forum on “Global Warming & Climate Management- Differing Perceptions”, organised by the India-Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Chennai, on 31 August


[1]Remarks of NDRC Chairman Zhang Ping to the visiting Japanese Foreign Minister, Xinhua,Beijing, 28 August 2010. [2]China Climate Change Info-Net, 20 May 2009. [3] Remarks of Professor Joanna Lews, Georgetown University at Brookings Institution event on ‘Outlook for China’, Washington, 18 March 2010 [4] US, China: A Green Security Blanket? , Michael Davidson, Asia Times online, 14 May 2010


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