December 23, 2009, 7:29 pm

Views on China’s Role in the Greenhouse

In the White House photo above, showing President Obama and Chinese prime minister Wen Jiabao heading to a bilateral meeting in Copenhagen, it’s noteworthy to see who’s smiling and who’s grim. The unsurprising outcome of two weeks of climate talks in Copenhagen was an accord full of conditionality. And the lack of specifics, according to the British environment writer Mark Lynas, was largely due to China. Mr. Lynas was in Copenhagen in several guises, as a TV show host, writer and adviser* to the government of the tiny island nation Maldives. The latter designation got him a front-row seat in the back-room negotiations among heads of state, and that resulted in his provocative and popular column in the Guardian on China and climate.

On “PBS NewsHour” Wednesday night, President Obama reflected on China’s maneuvers in Copenhagen, as well. I’ve snipped the take-home excerpt here, and further below I’ve appended Mr. Lynas’s response to a couple of questions I sent him about the outcome of the talks, and next steps.

[UPDATE 12/24: I've added a note that came in from Mohammad Al Sabban, the lead negotiator in climate talks for Saudi Arabia. He criticizes the fingerpointing aimed at China ]

President Obama on “PBS NewsHour”:

I think that people are justified in being disappointed about the outcome in Copenhagen. What I said was essentially that rather than see a complete collapse in Copenhagen, in which nothing at all got done and would have been a huge backward step, at least we kind of held ground and there wasn’t too much backsliding from where we were.

It didn’t move us the way we need to. The science says that we’ve got to significantly reduce emissions over the next – over the next 40 years. There’s nothing in the Copenhagen agreement that ensures that that happens.

What – what did occur was that at a point where there was about to be complete breakdown, and the prime minister of India was heading to the airport and the Chinese representatives were essentially skipping negotiations, and everybody’s screaming, what did happen was, cooler heads prevailed.

And we were able to at least agree on non-legally binding targets for all countries – not just the United States, not just Europe, but also for China and India, which, projecting forward, are going to be the world’s largest emitters.

So that – that was an important principle, that everybody’s got to do something in order to solve this problem. But I make no claims, and didn’t make any claims going in, that somehow that was going to be everything that we needed to do to solve climate change. And – and my main responsibility here is to convince the American people that it is smart economics and it is going to be the engine of our economic growth for us to be a leader in clean energy.

And if we pass a bill in the Senate, reconcile it with the House, that says we are going to invest in wind energy and solar energy and we’re going to be the guys who are producing wind turbines, and we’re going to be the folks who are producing solar panels on rooftops, and we’re going to be the country that is retrofitting all its homes and businesses so that we are 30 percent more energy-efficient than we are right now, that produces jobs that can’t be exported; it reduces our dependence on foreign oil; it is good economics; it will increase our exports – oh, and by the way, it also solves the climate problem. And that is, I think, an argument that I’m going to be making not just next year but for several years to come. Read more….

Here are my questions for Mr. Lynas:

What I’d love to know is how this affects your personal perception of the climate problem (the international policy end of it). Do you think the environmental community has been too soft on China and/or too quick to presume the United States is the bad actor? Or is there a chance this is still a dance of two giants, both culpable? Given that China is now pretty insulated from external pressures, what’s your best guess on a way forward? There are those saying its main interest remains energy security more than climate stability (and growth of course)….

Here is his reply:

I have various beefs here, to be honest. One is that the NGO movement is ten years out of date. They’re still arguing for ‘climate justice’, whatever that means, which is interpreted by the big developing countries like India and China as a right to pollute up to Western levels. To me carbon equity is the logic of mutually assured destruction. I think NGOs are far too soft on the Chinese, given that it’s the world’s biggest polluter, and is the single most important factor in deciding when global emissions will peak, which in turn is the single most important factor in the eventual temperature outcome.

Too many leftist activists are therefore tending to side with the big polluters because they think they’re standing in solidarity with the world’s poor. I far prefer President Nasheed’s (of the Maldives) take that “two wrongs don’t make a right.” In his plenary speech, he said: “We don’t want carbon, we want development. We don’t want coal, we want electricity. We don’t want oil, we want transport.” This seems to me to be the only logical path forward at this stage in the game.

Moreover, the standard Kyoto Protocol structure does not allow or encourage least-developed countries to stay low carbon. Instead, they have no targets, and no incentives to avoid building high-carbon infrastructure that locks in more emissions for decades to come. Part of the point of the Maldives going carbon neutral in a decade is to demonstrate this in concrete (literally) terms, and to begin to build up a coalition of other countries aiming at (supported) low-carbon growth.

I think the bottom line for China (and India) is growth, and given that this growth is mainly based on coal, there is going to have to be much more pressure on China if global emissions are to peak within any reasonable time frame. In Beijing the interests of the Party come first, second and third, and global warming is somewhere further down the list. Growth delivers stability and prosperity, and keeps the party in power.

So what does the west do now? Annex 1 countries saw their own unilateral targets removed by the Chinese from the Copenhagen Accord, which makes it difficult to see a way ahead. Plus, western electorates will not a buy a deal that does not involve some meaningful action by China. “Why should I do anything when China is building X new coal-fired power stations each week,” is the most common response I’ve come across, and is actually a fair point.

The EU has got itself into a mess by offering to up its offer from 20 percent cuts to 30 percent if others also took on more ambitious efforts. They didn’t, so what is the EU to do now? Say, “screw that, let’s burn more coal ourselves!” or do something more sensible, but something which exposes its previous negotiating position as weak?

This also calls into question the whole G77 thing, which patently does not serve the interests of most developing countries, if their interests are to avoid catastrophic climate change. Hopefully the disaster at Copenhagen will shake things up a bit in all sorts of ways. But until then, I retain the right to remain depressed!



[UPDATE 12/24: Here's Saudi Arabia's point of view on the results of the Copenhagen talks, provided by its lead negotiator, Mohammad Al Sabban:]

I would like to express our satisfaction with the outcome. We were among the twenty five or so countries who positively negotiated the Accord along with the world leaders, and we had succeeded in including the interest of OPEC countries in the Copenhagen Accord. However, and since there is no consensus on the Accord and since some of those countries who were in what is called “green room” started to disassociate themselves from parts of the Accord including the parts that protect the interests of developing countries including ours, we feel it is difficult to see how the upcoming negotiations would be if we start from scratch as many are predicting. If so, we may be heading to the same future of the WTO Doha Round, which is facing a total stalemate.

We are greatly disturbed by the statements of some developed countries pointing fingers at some or all developing countries for what they consider a total failure. This will exacerbate the already huge mountain of mistrust between the North and the South. What we need now is for us to learn from the current experience to better handling of the negotiations in the years to come before concluding, if ever, what would be the most difficult international economic agreement.

Here’s one last vital view of the Copenhagen talks that I highly recommend:

[* I asked Mr. Lynas to clarify the nature of that position and he said it's unpaid.]

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By 2050 or so, the world population is expected to reach nine billion, essentially adding two Chinas to the number of people alive today. Those billions will be seeking food, water and other resources on a planet where, scientists say, humans are already shaping climate and the web of life. In Dot Earth, reporter Andrew C. Revkin examines efforts to balance human affairs with the planet’s limits. Conceived in part with support from a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, Dot Earth tracks relevant news from suburbia to Siberia. The blog is an interactive exploration of trends and ideas with readers and experts. You can follow Mr. Revkin on Twitter and Facebook.

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