What Is China Saying in Copenhagen?

Climate officials from around the world have assembled in Copenhagen for two weeks to address global warming. Here’s an interesting article from today’s Guardian. Highlights:

China’s carbon emissions will peak between 2030 and 2040, the country’s science and technology minister [Wan Gang] told the Guardian as the global climate change summit began in Copenhagen.

And:

The precise timing, he said, would depend on uncertain factors such as the pace of China’s economic growth, rate of urbanisation, and level of scientific development. But he added that the earlier date in the range would be possible if China continued to invest in renewable energy, improved energy efficiency, commercialized carbon capture technology, and changed consumer behavior.

And:

Environmental groups gave a cautious welcome to the figure, but said China could be more ambitious if rich nations provide technology and finance. “This is a good thing. This is the first time that a ministerial-level official has confirmed the peak range,” said Yang Ailun of Greenpeace. “If China really makes climate change a priority, they could peak by 2030. And if they get support from developed countries, they could do it even faster.”

An agreement to transfer technology and money from rich to poor nations is one of China’s main goals at the Copenhagen conference. China is keen to get international help to reduce the price of silicon processing for solar panels and to develop ultra-efficient coal gasification plants. It is already collaborating with the U.K. on a project to capture carbon dioxide. In future, Wan said the country will explore the potential for storage or conversion to algae biofuels.

There is an awful lot to unpack in this one brief article. Is this really a “good thing” from the Greenpeace perspective? What shape and scale will the “technology and money” transfers take? Also at Copenhagen, the deputy head of China’s climate delegation has reportedly complained that “neither the U.S., the E.U., nor Japan had offered sufficient cuts in their greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.”

What do these reports make you feel about the future of governmental efforts to decrease greenhouse-gas emissions? I suspect that, as with other climate issues, one’s incoming biases will dictate whether the glass looks half full or half empty.

In SuperFreakonomics, we express skepticism about the likelihood of meaningful agreements in this realm:

If, say, Australia decided overnight to eliminate its carbon emissions, that fine nation wouldn’t enjoy the benefits of its costly and painful behavior unless everyone else joined in. Nor does one nation have the right to tell another what to do. The United States has in recent years sporadically attempted to lower its emissions. But when it leans on China or India to do the same, those countries can hardly be blamed for saying, Hey, you got to free-ride your way to industrial superpowerdom, so why shouldn’t we?


Rick

I would not characterize China as a "developing nation" needing financial assistance. In any case it is a good thing that they are pursuing cleaner technologies. The U.S. should be even more agressive. The leader will be able to sell the technology especially as oil begins to peak and local pressure to clean up the environment builds. All this will happen regardless of the belief in climate change. It just parallels the historical track of the US and Europe. First smoke belching factories and powerplants then as consequences were seen in the 60s and 70s pressure was exerted to reduce air and water pollution. Higher carbon dioxide levels now and the resultant impact on coral and other marine life is like the acid rain in the latter half of the 20th century.

It's the right thing to do from a purely economic point of view.

frankenduf

"one nation does not have the right to tell another what to do"- this is an extremely facile ethical point- of course nations have that right, and have exercised it throughout history- if you're the US, you bomb; if you're a mature nation, you use diplomacy; if you're an enlightened nation, you use the UN or World Court- so if a nation breaks the rule of international law, than other nations have the right and duty to compel it to stop- the issue here is whether pollution is breaking the law, and this is precisely the type of "agreement" that is trying to be hammered out- that is, what level of pollution will be seen as breaking international standards and hence be compelled to change ( via cap + trade, tax, bombs, etc)

David

I suspect that most people in the developing world such as in China have more pressing concerns than the 2 degree change in the atomspere in the future. If you don't have bread and butter, you would not have the drive to clean-up the water; if your life is full of hard labor to make ends meet, how could you be bothered by the 2 degree difference in temperature?

Climate change is an issue for the developed countries, which contributed the majority of the greenhouse effect. These countries have the obligation to lead and help to reverse the situation.

Michael Kaye

What if we are past the tipping point? If we are, then the focus on to what extent rich or poor countries should bear the burden of cutting emissions to mitigate climate change is academic.

Stephen

"If you don't have bread and butter, you would not have the drive to clean-up the water"

If a temperature increase of 4 degrees melts the himalayan glaciers and messes up the water cycles of the great south asian and east asian river basins, then the person who barely has bread and butter will definitely care because agricultural yields will drop significantly.

China and India have to get involved because they have so much to lose.

I'm pretty pessimistic about the ability for governments to coordinate collective action at this kind of scale. The near-term costs are significant, and the large forgone losses are far away. People are terrible about making those kinds of tradeoffs, so why should we expect governments to do much better? Its not like today's politicians will be around in the future to be blamed anyway.

The one economics perspective theory I haven't seen mentioned much is bargaining theory. Bargaining theory tells us that the outcome reached (if any) will be a function of the outside option attainable by each party. If you have a poor outside option, then you get few of the gains from the bargain.

This is very important when thinking about climate change negotiations. The most serious consequences of climate change will be on the poorest countries - so they have the least bargaining power. Rich countries will get along ok even if they don't do much.
So if poor countries just demand that rich countries act while giving up nothing, then there won't be a deal.

The only way rich countries are going to take serious action is if rich country citizens (especially in the US) are a lot more altruistic (and care a lot more about the immorality of harming poor countries) than I think they are.

The other thing that doesn't get mentioned is the un-PC idea that rich country citizens resent straight per-capita emissions comparisons, on the grounds of "it's not my fault if you can't control your population growth".
Ignoring of course that rich countries had the same population growth not that long ago.

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Sara

They talk, and talk, and talk. The agenda of summits, meetings become myopic. We might as well just pack up and butt off to another planet and kickstart a new carbon cycle all over again.

misterb

If Australia alone makes carbon reducing changes than Australia will profit. Climate change has many local effects even if we can't adequately predict them. And certainly other pollutants that are reduced along with CO2 will greatly improve air quality, particularly in Chine which uses coal heavily.
At one time, science was considered human property; certainly there should be basic science research that the developed nations share with all countries. While the developed nations may have the research and educational facilities, the developing countries may have the geniuses that will make the big breakthroughs. I would like to see a global Manhattan project that would try to increase the planet's overall energy efficiency. Whether or not you believe in global warming, you have to believe that is a good thing.

choikyo

To Stephen,
You point sounds like RIch countries are helping poor countries. Well, here is some different view.
1. The histrical pollution by the industril CO2 emission was mainly made by the current rich countries. so , for US and EU , it should be obligations.
2. poor countries also have a lot to do , I agree, but also you have to know, countries like India ,China or Arifa. reducing the use of energy will cause poverty and death. So ya, obviously they should do that, but they maybe do not have the tech for that goal.
3. China made a goal that by 2020 , reduce 40-45%. but EU 's plan was 2008 to 2012 reduce 8%. which was 2.4%. But now, by 2020 totally 20%, which is 1.2%each year. I mean, this is something you should do . Now , if you blame poor countries. It's like asking poor people to lose weight.

Shanghainese

As of a well-off urban citizen in Shanghai, I turn on AC only 2-3 hours a day in the freezing cold days. While, when I was in US, I turn on heater after I got home and turn it off when I go to bed. It is cold and inconvenient but that's how we have been living. Many Americans I know keep the heater on all day or overnight, and take that for granted.

Though the numbers of cars are growing fast, most Chinese still take public transportation, which is crowded and unpleasant. While most Americans own more than one car.

Per capita, average Chinese emits a fraction of carbon compared with an average American/European. It seems unfair to me to require China and US to cut the emission by the same percent.

angeral

The author tell us that developing countries such as China attend the copenhagen conference mainly for getting clean technique from developed countries.
He also said,"The United States has in recent years sporadically attempted to lower its emissions. But when it leans on China or India to do the same, those countries can hardly be blamed for saying, Hey, you got to free-ride your way to industrial superpowerdom, so why shouldn't we?"
I think such views are unfair, To some extent, developed countries should be responsible for the poverty of developing countries. I am so glad to point that it is developed countries that have been emissing the largest amount of carbon dioxide since the first Industial Revolution. Rich countries robbed poor countries during the colonial period, and they buy resources from poor counties through unfair trades in modern times. Then,they get economic developed,consume most of the resources in the world and get the water and air polluted. At last, they seek to transfer pollution to poor countries. And now they want to sell clean technique to poor countries at a high price!
Rich countries shall be responsible for what they have done! There is NO country that can sustain the loss of global warming.

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sam

China is a "developing nation"? No ! lots of people in west region are very very poor.BUT I KNOW our government makes efffort to clean the air

Stephen

@choikyo
Yes, the primary marginal benefit from rich countries reducing their emissions is to help poor countries avoid serious losses from climate change though.

I think you're missing much of my point though.
Its all very well for us to phrase things in terms of "should" and "ought" and "obligation" and "fairness". Those are great things to have, and they make great rhetoric.

But thats unfortunately not very realistic. I think we need some realpolitik here. International negotiations are made significantly based on national interests. Historical/moral arguments about who can/should be blamed for existing emissions are somewhat orthogonal to the issue of actual bargaining power on the ground.
If China/India/Brazil/Indonesia refuse to commit to anything, and just demand cash handouts, then there won't be the political will in rich countries (especially the US) to make significant cuts. And it won't be the rich countries who suffer the largest losses from changing climate.

Also, I don't think anyone is seriously asking poor countries to reduce their absolute emissions below current levels. Even the strictest proposals still have China's emissions growing until 2020.

What is being asked is to have commitments on when their emissions peak, and commitments to reduce their emissions intensities.

The figures you are quoting are different things.
Europe is talking about reducing *absolute emissions levels* by 20-30% below 1990 levels.
China is talking about reducing *emissions intensity*, ie the ratio of emissions to GDP. So, a 40% reduction in intensity means that if China's GDP doubles by 2020 (compound growth of ~7.5% per year) then its total emissions will still rise 20% over 2010 levels.

Nobody is asking China to cut its emissions by the same amount as rich countries.

The Chinese government also seems to be taking climate change much more seriously than say India.

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Hannah H

"If a temperature increase of 4 degrees melts the himalayan glaciers and messes up the water cycles of the great south asian and east asian river basins, then the person who barely has bread and butter will definitely care because agricultural yields will drop significantly"

Yes, but I should think that they have more immediate issues on their mind.

Anyway, if China is requesting technology and finances (which I thought they had plenty of) does that make them the bootlegger and Greenpeace the baptist?

DMS

@misterb (coment 7),

Sorry? If "Australia alone makes reducing changes (then) Australia will profit"; how on earth do you figure that?

Put a massive impost on the Australian economy, make Australian labor/labour and so exports less competitive (particularly coal and LNG), nobody else does anything and exactly how is there a benefit? Certainly not an environmental one - Australia is 1.4% of global anthropogenic CO2 production, and reduction other than to zero won't be measurable.

If the entire world makes reducing changes then the best that an energy-exporting country like Australia can expect is to at least get no disbenefit. To assert that a unilateral cut would provide unique benefits is nuts.

And by the way, there are of course unique local environmental issues but these will not be effected by CO2 emission cuts, as these will contribute globally (if at all). Disconnect CO2 from the argument and you have an inkling of a point - focus on real pollution, waterway preservation, land use changes deforestation etc. This focus on CO2 is destroying true environmental concerns.

You make typical false, unsubstantiated (and unsubstantiatable) assertions which at best would make people feel good in their poverty (maybe).

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Ed

I definitely think that there are enough local effects to make it worthwhile cutting out the CO2 since that will have an effect on other environmental issues. Seriously. Imagine any big city like e.g. my dear Taipei with everyone riding bikes and the MRT. Now that's heaven!

Stephen

"Yes, but I should think that they have more immediate issues on their mind."

If by immediate you mean chronological - sure. I'll grant that people are myopic. If by immediate you mean important, then no - what is more important to a rural farmer than their crop yield - which determines both their income, and whether or not they can eat?

"I definitely think that there are enough local effects to make it worthwhile cutting out the CO2 since that will have an effect on other environmental issues."

Why would you think that? There is no scientific basis for that.

CO2 does not affect other environmental problems. It doesn't cause air pollution. Particulate emissions do a local level, but that is a separate thing from CO2.

Climate change depends on the total amount of CO2 in the atmosphere - it doesn't matter which country emitted it.

This is why climate change presents the classic public good problem; for all but the largest countries, the marginal environmental gains to a country from reducing its own CO2 emissions are negligible.
Hence the need for international cooperation.

Australia's (and the USA's) decisions and behavior are arguably irresponsible and immoral, in that they impose negative externalites on the rest of the world, but they're not irrational. The costs Australia will suffer from climate change (higher temperatures, worse droughts, desertification, cyclones, etc.) are basically unrelated to their own GHG emissions level.

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lynn

it is deveoped countries' obligation to supply high tech and finance to help developing countries such as china mainland,indonesia, india with reducing emitting of co2.it is truly no doubt.
industril countries had been emit too much of it to our dear planet in two hundreds years while poor countries even have no money to buy gas for their motobicycle in my hometown. My country is poor enough to pay the environment price casued by we the world people together,but we are ready to take action to fight for global warmming.
voice from poor china mainland

lynn

it is deveoped countries' obligation to supply high tech and finance to help developing countries such as china mainland,indonesia, india with reducing emitting of co2.it is truly no doubt.
industril countries had been emit too much of it to our dear planet in two hundreds years while poor countries even have no money to buy gas for their motobicycle in my hometown. My country is poor enough to pay the environment price casued by we the world people together,but we are ready to take action to fight for global warmming.
voice from Fujian,china mainland

lynn

i am pessimistic about copenhegen climate summit. they talk and then quarreled....again and again

nate

i harbor the perspective that the developed nations should abide by the responsibility in coping with climate change ang global warming .that is because most of the emission in history is from the developed countries .this is self-evident .unfortunately,they endeavor to escape from their responsibility.