Copenhagen: Why China is Mostly Right

December 16, 2009

China recently announced it will reduce the emissions-intensity of its economy (ratio of emissions to GDP) by at least 40-45 percent by 2020. But in Copenhagen it is resisting making that promise an internationally binding commitment. That’s a big problem for the U.S. negotiators, since the Congress is adamant: the U.S. will not commit until and unless the Chinese do too. But the Chinese have a point. Outside the cities, there are still hundreds of millions of Chinese people living on less than $5 a day (the poverty line in the U.S. is about $22 a day and in Europe it’s about $30 day), cooking over health-defying carbon-spewing stoves, shivering in winter, sweating and suffering in summer….poverty with all its indignities and material deprivations is alive and well in the Chinese countryside.The Chinese are not going to sacrifice the living standards of their poor on the altar of reduced energy use per capita. Certainly not when Americans use nearly 10 times per capita the amount of energy the Chinese do. Indeed, fairness demands that the development needs of the world’s poor for energy are not compromised, as Arvind Subramanian and I recently argued here (1 page) and here (3 pages). This does not mean we are not proponents of rapid reductions in emissions, including in both developed and developing countries, and our analysis should not be interpreted (as it is here) as sanguine on the emissions problem.So: How to reconcile increased energy use worldwide with reduced emissions? Our calculations in a research paper (30+ pages) suggest that the only way that energy needs can be met with fairness (to poor people) is through a carbon technology revolution. (I find it slightly embarrassing that this is also the point Bjorn Lomborg seems to be pushing, at least as reported this morning in this NPR story – even if he’s wrong on other climate issues, as Bill Cline has compellingly argued). That underlines the call made by my colleague David Wheeler in his 2008 prescription for the US to spend $45 billion a year on clean energy research as part of a coherent US development agenda, here.Bottom line: Until the outlines of a technological revolution are clear (if and when in the rich world the incentives and the resources to find and make operational clean energy are on the table), the Chinese won’t want to be internationally accountable for their emissions goals in a binding treaty.But the Chinese are wrongheaded on a related issue. They are resisting any international verification of their expected reduction of emissions from the current upward trend – despite the broad support (including by respondents to our recent survey) from developing countries, for international monitoring, reporting and verification. The Chinese ought to agree now to international verification of their national reporting of emissions – as the basis, among other things, for a global trading regime of emissions rights, but against what baseline and subject to what binding commitments of rich countries – well that is another story.


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