What the world is getting wrong about China and climate change
chinadialogue: How has China’s role in the global response to climate change evolved over the past decade?
Zou Ji: I divide it into three stages. First, from 1989 to 1995, China learned about climate change and started to participate in international discussions. It mainly went along with the global process.
Then, from 1995, when substantive climate negotiations started, to the Bali roadmap in 2007, China shifted from adjustment and familiarisation to active participation in response to calls from other countries. During the negotiations over the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the Chinese media commonly rejected the demands and requests of the international community, and that made a deep impression on other nations.
Since 2007, China has become more active, entering a stage of full and positive participation.
Driving this last stage has been the global trend towards low-carbon development and, more importantly, a change in domestic circumstances. During the 10th and 11th Five-Year Plans, China’s economy grew exponentially, bringing alarming increases in energy consumption, spending on power plants and emissions. Ten years ago, China had less than 500 gigawatts of generating capacity – now it has over 1,000 gigawatts. In six or seven years, more capacity was added than in the 50 years after 1949.
Those figures are enough to rattle any economist or China expert. Coal is China’s primary source of energy, and those hundreds of gigawatts of power rely on the burning of coal. Huge numbers of people are at work in coal mines, both large and small, and about half of rail freight capacity is used to move coal. That’s quite something. In the early 1990s, China was an oil exporter. Today, we depend on imports for almost 60% of our consumption. This is unimaginable, in terms of oil price, economic cost and energy security. We have hit the limit of this type of growth.
So China has started to rethink things. The decades leading up to 2050 are crucial for China’s shift from a middle-income developing country to a middle-income developed country, and we can’t yet be sure we’ll hit that goal. What we can be sure of is this: if we carry on with our current model of development, there’s little chance of success.
To sum up, China’s role has shifted from being asked to act, to acting of its own accord. That was determined by the prospects, the basic interests, of China’s billion-plus population. And China has affirmed that approach through its national strategy – everyone has seen the action taken to close down obsolete production and adjust economic structure.
cd: Cutting emissions isn’t easy for an industrialising and urbanising economy. Is the rest of the world asking too much? Forget for a moment the political tussles over how much CO2 can and should be cut – what’s China’s actual ability to reduce emissions?
ZJ: China does have some advantages, such as the opportunity for adjustments in the world economy due to the financial crisis. Also, China has become the world’s second largest economy and the gap with the US is shrinking. Spending on institutional measures and research and development that in the past would have been unthinkable is becoming feasible.
Although the world is still led by the developed nations, the status and negotiating strength of the developing world is also on the increase.
But at the same time, China suffers from some obvious disadvantages.
The international community has some misconceptions, such as believing China is now a developed nation. This could mean China ends up taking on more global responsibility than its capabilities allow. We’ve held the Olympics and sent astronauts into space, but you can’t look at the richest parts of Beijing and Shanghai and assume the whole country is like that. The welfare of hundreds of millions of rural residents isn’t yet assured. Healthcare, unemployment benefits, pensions, all of these are weak. Many Chinese people have no safe drinking water, and our per-capita GDP ranks ninety-something globally. Overall, China is still a developing nation.
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