Getting China Wrong

It’s been a long time since Copenhagen.

A few weeks after it ended, chatting to a friend about some stupid comments I’d overhead during that long last night, he said that “everyone gets a pass for anything they said during the first week.” The first week after Copenhagen is what he meant — a time of exhaustion and near despair in international climate circles.

I bring this up because some of the stupid things that were said during that first week are still with us. There were plenty of them, of course, but this post doesn’t pretend to be comprehensive. It’s just about China.

Copenhagen, of course, was not a success. But it did change the game, in particular by establishing a framework in which both northern and southern countries can step forward to “pledge” to mitigation actions of various kinds. As they do, scientists and institutes around the world are tabulating the pledges, normalizing them, calculating their implied aggregate impact on global temperature, and — inevitably — drawing conclusions about which countries are doing their “fair share” and which are free riding on the efforts of others.

Such conclusions can be complicated. What, after all, should a national emissions pledge be compared to?  A projection of business-as-usual emissions? If so, which one? A measure of per-capita “emissions rights”?  If so, what about the fact that the “atmospheric space” is already exhausted? A fair-shares national obligation? If so, how will such an obligation be calculated, and on the basis of what principles Historical responsibility? If so, starting when Capacity to pay? If so, how should such capacity be defined? How should the obligations of rich countries be compared to those of poor? And what about the rich people within poor countries? Or for that matter the poor people within rich ones? Such “intra-national” injustice can’t be ignored, but how should it be accounted?

Such questions, fortunately, are answerable. In fact, the terms by which they can be resolved — a “fair enough” accord based upon “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” — are at this point reasonably familiar and well understood. The question is if the dynamic of the negotiations can be shifted from one in which countries jockey for short-term advantage to one in which they seek new forms of cooperation. And who must do what before such a shift is possible.

In this context, the central debate can finally be pushed to center stage. Which countries are carrying their own weight, and which are not? And how, really, can we tell? The question is now on the floor, and the need good answers is palpable. So, too, is the need to clear the fog, which is thick indeed.

On the other hand, there comes a point where the numbers almost speak for themselves. Consider the following two charts, which tell a complex tale in a simple manner that, while not ideal, does serve to highlight the main point — U.S. emissions, cumulated over time, are greater than China’s, but at the same time the U.S. is pledging to smaller cuts.

US vs China - v2

The first chart is responsibility, i.e., contribution to global warming, cumulated from 1900. (The total[1] or the United States is 338 GtCO2, and for China is 124 GtCO2.) The second chart is a reflection of pledged reduction effort for the year 2020 in GtCO2. It compares the U.S. goal of reducing emissions by 17 percent with China’s goal of reducing emissions intensity by 40-45 percent. Both figures are defined relative to 2005 levels, and are pledged for the year 2020. (The US pledge translates[2] to approximately 0.8 GtCO2 of effort in 2020, and the China pledge is calculated[3] to amount to approximately 2.5 GtCO2 in 2020, or approximately 3 times the United States effort)

These charts are not, if I may put the matter gently, consistent with the common, post-Copenhagen story of China’s climate policy, which has it that, in the words of British climate secretary Ed Miliband, China “held the world to ransom” in an attempt to prevent a climate treaty. Nor is this an incidental point.

The blame game

Why was Copenhagen so disappointing? It’s a tough question with lots of possible approaches. Alternatively, it may be that Copenhagen’s failure was simply China’s fault. This explanation, alas, has grown legs. It demands discussion, beginning with Mark Lynas’ widely read, and rather fantastically misleading How do I know China wrecked the Copenhagen deal?  I was in the room. Here, as a reminder, are Lynas’ key paragraphs:

To those who would blame Obama and rich countries in general, know this: it was China’s representative who insisted that industrialized country targets, previously agreed as an 80 percent cut by 2050, be taken out of the deal. “Why can’t we even mention our own targets?” demanded a furious Angela Merkel. Australia’s prime minister, Kevin Rudd, was annoyed enough to bang his microphone. Brazil’s representative too pointed out the illogicality of China’s position. Why should rich countries not announce even this unilateral cut? The Chinese delegate said no, and I watched, aghast, as Merkel threw up her hands in despair and conceded the point. Now we know why — because China bet, correctly, that Obama would get the blame for the Copenhagen accord’s lack of ambition.

China, backed at times by India, then proceeded to take out all the numbers that mattered. A 2020 peaking year in global emissions, essential to restrain temperatures to 2C, was removed and replaced by woolly language suggesting that emissions should peak “as soon as possible”. The long-term target, of global 50 percent cuts by 2050, was also excised. No one else, perhaps with the exceptions of India and Saudi Arabia, wanted this to happen …

With the deal gutted, the heads of state session concluded with a final battle as the Chinese delegate insisted on removing the 1.5C target so beloved of the small island states and low-lying nations who have most to lose from rising seas. President Nasheed of the Maldives, supported by Brown, fought valiantly to save this crucial number. “How can you ask my country to go extinct?” demanded Nasheed. The Chinese delegate feigned great offense — and the number stayed, but surrounded by language which makes it all but meaningless. The deed was done.

It sounds pretty bad, and no doubt it was. In any case, it’s easy to see why Lynas’ fly-on-the-wall account was so compelling, particularly to desperate northerners, environmentalists of course but also, and more generally, all those who are already primed to see China as an implacable mercantilist threat to their preferred style of capitalism. The real question, though, is if his summary interpretation — “This is fast becoming China’s century, yet its leadership has displayed that multilateral environmental governance is not only not a priority, but is viewed as a hindrance to the new superpower’s freedom of action” — is an accurate one.

Caution is in order, as always in the face of politically convenient arguments. And certainly Lynas’ conclusions are much in line with the North’s strategy of hiding behind the emerging economies. See for example Snubbed In Copenhagen, E.U. Weighs Climate Options, a Reuters piece that told us that “Officials acknowledge privately that the mandatory system for enforcing emissions curbs created by the 1997 Kyoto protocol is doomed because China won’t accept any constraints on its future economic growth, and the United States won’t join any agreement that is not binding on Beijing.”

Still, it’s not enough to point out that Lynas’ argument is useful to the North. Or even to remind ourselves that by many measures China is already making greater efforts than the wealthy countries of the North. It’s also necessary to go to the core of Lynas’ argument, which as he recently put it, is that “Copenhagen has opened up a chasm between sustainability and equity.” Why? Because, though “NGOs that ideologically support equity defend the right of developing countries to increase their emissions for two to three more decades at least,” in fact, “there is no room for expansion by anyone.”

In Lynas’ view, this “chasm between sustainability and equity” is a pitiless divide, which no amount of pro-poor solidarity can bridge. In fact, it’s an implacable truth of our carbon-constrained future that not only China, but also India, and South Africa, and Brazil, and Mexico, and indeed the entire “emerging” world is at the edge of an near-impossible future. If the climate is to be saved, the South will have to put its developmental aspirations onto the betting table, and it will have to do so soon.

It is fact the case that “there is no room for expansion by anyone”?  Then welcome to the future as a suicide pact. For it is highly unlikely that the developing countries, and the emerging economies in particular, will have their plans so rudely checked. But what’s the alternative? This is a good question, much discussed by those who’ve been following the burden-sharing debate that’s raged through the climate community in the last few years. Unfortunately, this debate does not seem to be familiar to Mark Lynas. Which, perhaps, is not entirely his fault. In truth, the northern climate movement has quite failed to explain the structure of the global climate justice problem to the broader population. Or even to itself.

What exactly is this problem? Only that we’ve reached the limits to growth, and done so in a world that’s bitterly divided between haves and have-nots. That, despite decades of warnings, the wealthy nations have neglected to demonstrate that low-carbon development paths are actually possible. That they’ve instead pursued business-as-usual economics, and, within the climate negotiations, have stonewalled on the oft-repeated demand, made not just by the Chinese but by the entire developing world, to accept meaningful reduction commitments. That, against this dark background, China — a proud country that has for all its many faults lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty — has emerged as the chief voice of a southern bloc that has consistently refused to accept the choice between developmental justice and climate stabilization.

The South dilemma is easy enough to visualize. Consider the “G8 style” emissions pathway that provoked China’s backroom confrontation with the North. The details of this pathway are that: 1) global emissions peak soon (about 2020) and decline by 2050 to 50 percent below 1990 levels; and 2) Northern emissions simultaneously decline to 80 percent below 1990 levels. Now ask yourself — why might China’s rejection of such an offer be reasonable? The answer lies in arithmetic: The remaining global emissions budget is so small that, despite a relatively ambitious program of northern emission reductions, southern emissions must still peak soon, and then drop almost as rapidly as global emissions themselves. Further, they must do so while the people of the South are still struggling to escape poverty, and more generally to invent new, dignified, and sustainable models of life.

The climate crisis is, in other words, a crisis of development.

It’s necessary to be very clear here. The problem is not that poverty alleviation, or even just forms of sustainable development, are now impossible. The problem is rather that they have not been compellingly demonstrated. Indeed, the wealthy countries, through their reluctance to reduce their own emissions, have quite convincingly demonstrated to the developing world how undesirable — if not actually impossible — such paths must be. The simple fact is that, today, the only proven routes up from poverty still involve an expanded use of energy and, consequently, a seemingly inevitable increase in fossil-fuel use and thus carbon emissions.

Moreover, the South’s reticence, understandable within a G8-style pathway, is all the more compelling in the context of a global 350 target. Here, even if the North’s emissions drop at a sustained rate of 10 percent a year, to approach zero in 2050 (an ambitious goal by any measure), the South would still be left with a reduction pathway that is scarcely less stringent. How it can be negotiated is one of the biggest and most pressing questions on the geopolitical agenda, one that this note will not attempt to answer. But I must at least stipulate that, unless the South comes to trust the North’s willingness to accept its fair share of the necessary effort, whatever it turns out to be, honest emergency pathways will remain forever out of reach.

Return to China, which despite wealthy enclaves still has many, many people living in poverty. Consider that the targets that the Chinese expunged from the Copenhagen Accord would have important developmental implications. And that the South has for years made it clear that it will simply not allow itself to be trapped into sacrificing development for climate protection. Remember that, during the run up to Copenhagen, the South repeatedly insisted that the North accept a science-based reduction target at the “upper end” of the IPCC’s 25 percent by 40 percent range (from the 1990 baseline, by 2020). And that the North, for its part, attempted instead to enshrine a global reduction pathway that would have implicitly constrained southern development, and to do so without itself adopting science-based targets of any kind. Then ask yourself, again, exactly what (other than its failure to properly explain itself, which was egregious indeed) was so unreasonable about the Chinese position.

The answer is not obvious.

Note: For a much more detailed and quantitative discussion of the trajectories here, and of the dilemma that climate destabilization poses for the developing countries, see this.


[1] This is the total fossil CO2 emitted by the United States and China, respectively, since 1900, as reported by the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC) of the United States Department of Energy. If one were to look back only to 1950 (rather than 1900), then the tally would be 260 GtCO2 for the US, and 122 GtCO2 for China.

[2] The Energy Information Agency of the US Department of Energy forecasts in their Annual Energy Outlook 2010 that 2020 fossil CO2 emissions in the US will be 3.2 percent lower than they were in 2005, this under a reference case (i.e., a business-as-usual scenario) in which the United States does not enact national climate policy. The International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook 2009, projects an even greater decline of roughly 5 percent over the same period. Emissions were already 8.9 percent lower in 2009 than in 2005 owing to the ongoing economic recession, but both EIA’s AEO2010 and the IEA’s WEO2009 projects a modest rebound for the United States over the coming decade. To meet the 17 percent pledge, therefore, the U.S. will need to reduce emissions below the expected 3.2 percent “reference” reduction by a further 0.8 GtCO2. (If one instead goes with the IEA’s projection of a 5 percent reference reduction, the additional required mitigation would be about 0.7 GtCO2.)

[3] This estimated was calculated by the UNFCCC Secretariat and documented in their Preliminary Assessment of pledges made by Annex 1 Parties and voluntary actions and policy goals by a number of non-Annex 1 Parties. (This leaked document was widely circulated, and made available). The Secretariat’s 2.5 GtCO2 estimate of the abatement effort implied by the Chinese pledge is calculated relative to a constructed reference case (not the IEA WEO2009) that explicitly excludes the effort associated with China’s existing energy intensity policy. As the Secretariat explained, “The level of emissions in the [IEA WEO2009] reference scenario … is among the lowest compared to the other studies available. … [It] already includes the effects from some of the pledges and voluntary action in cases where the relevant legislation and policies are put in place. This includes, among others, a large part of the E.U. 20 percent reduction target, Norway 30 percent reduction target, Australia’s 5 percent reduction target and China’s current policies, notably the 20 percent energy efficiency improvement target.”

William Chandler (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) is more explicit: “The current energy intensity policy … can legitimately be described as severe, even draconian. The policy imposes hundreds of detailed industrial efficiency standards to a degree unparalleled in any other country in the world. The policy has forced closure of tens of thousands of factories, power plants, and production lines that failed to meet the standards. It is unimaginable that such a policy could ever be enacted in the United States, much less be continued for another decade. It’s a non-trivial error to call it a “reference case,” as the IEA has done.” See Memo To Copenhagen: Commentary Is Misinformed-China’s Commitment Is Significant.