China's Dilemma at the UN Climate Change Conference
Linda Jakobson | Chatham House | April 2009
December the UN Climate Change Conference meets in Copenhagen to negotiate a follow up agreement
to the Kyoto Protocol. For China
this represents a double challenge: on the one side the Chinese government must
guarantee that in the war against climate change their domestic economy is not
slowing down. After all, the most important sources of legitimacy for the sole
governing party are growth and rising living standards. On the other hand,
China's leadership wants to present themselves as reliable partners on the
international stage, take responsibility for
global solutions and live up to its status as an emerging superpower.
How can the Chinese leadership approach this dilemma?
Chinese climate change experts are split into two camps. One group assumes that if the US accepts ambitious and binding reduction targets, China will not want to stand out as the sole big air polluter. These experts point out China would always be ready to compromise if international isolation were threatened. However, they doubt that such objectives can actually be obtained and fear Beijing will produce all possible excuses to avoid adhering to the targets. The other camp of experts does not believe that China will accept reduction targets for three reasons: First, the government must ensure that the recovery continues in the face of the economic crisis, otherwise political survival would be endangered. Secondly, a general belief that the aims of Western industrialized countries, in particular the US, are to prevent China from becoming a political and economic superpower exists among the Chinese elite. Thirdly, Beijing, especially in recent times, tends to only agree to international commitments if they are sure they can meet them. Concerning CO2 emissions, it seems the members of government themselves are anything but sure whether the rigorous standards would be technologically possible.
China's government does not dispute that phenomenal domestic growth in the last thirty years has resulted in a dramatic increase in greenhouse gas emissions. But at the same time they emphasize time and again that China is more a victim of climate change than a creator of it. Thus, above all, the industrialized countries must take responsibility. Furthermore, Chinese government officials like to refer to the relatively small ratio of people to CO2 emissions in comparison to industrialized countries. For a long time China has pursued energy and industrial policies that sooner or later will result in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Still this policy appears closer to the aim of reducing the reliance on foreign oil imports and increasing energy security. So it remains to be seen in December whether the international community can manage to convert Chinese anxiety over greater energy efficiency into a collaborative war against climate change.
This summary was prepared by the Atlantic Community editorial team from "China's Changing Climate," published here by The World Today, Chatham House, April 2009.