Negotiating a changing climate

How can major economies address the climate-change crisis and reach an agreement in the face of the economic downturn? Isabel Hilton speaks to Bjorn Stigson, president of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.

Isabel Hilton (IH): What do you expect from China in the future? What can China do for the lowcarbon market?

Bjorn Stigson (BS): First of all, China is doing a lot already. China is pushing energy efficiency. China is pushing in a lowcarbon direction. They are doing that for domestic reasons, not because of pressure from abroad. And the domestic reasons are energy security, which is connected to national security. The other concern is that climate-change risks destabilising rural areas, the domestic food supply and agriculture: any social unrest in China normally starts in the rural areas. There is concern from the government and the Communist Party that climate change might be a destabilising factor and a threat to the position of the government. These are the main drivers for China. Now China, I believe, is going to come to Copenhagen with some scepticism over what they can agree to and not agree to. It will be very much connected to the position that the United States is taking.

But China is also very much aware that China’s future depends on access to export markets and they are also very clear that if they do not take part in a forwardlooking way in the solutions, they risk a backlash from their export markets. They will play a constructive role, but they will clearly say that you that rich countries have put up the carbon that is there, and they have to take the main burden of reducing what has already been created. They are saying that China is going to take responsibility for its emissions going forward, they are going to increase their efficiency and drive down emissions, but they cannot take responsibility for the historical legacy that the rich countries have created. That, I believe, will be their position.

IH: China is now the world’s factory. There has been a huge shift of manufacturing to China. When the Carbon Disclosure Project began to work in China last year, they got no response from Chinese companies in terms of accounting for carbon and all these procedures that are necessary to reduce a carbon footprint. How does one get Chinese companies which are now one of the main drivers of the global economy on board with this agenda?

BS: You have to do it in cooperation with the Chinese authorities.

IH: The signs then are that it is not yet being taken very seriously.

BS: I am co-chairing the lowcarbon task force in China, together with a Chinese leading economist. What we are being asked to do is to provide input for the Chinese government on how to frame the next Five-Year Plan in a low-carbon economy direction. Once the Chinese government is framing the Five-Year Plan in that direction, that will go into all the economic planning and business will also get targets for what they should be doing. There will be targets for governments and targets for mayors and so on as to what they should be doing in their various areas. That is how change is being driven in China. Change is not going to come because a foreign body comes in and says they have great solutions and asks people to join. Any business leader in China will look in the other direction and say, “What does the Chinese government want me to do?” If that signal isn’t there, then they are going to say, “Nice to meet you”– and go on doing what they have been doing.

IH: You said China will look to the United States in Copenhagen. There has obviously been a huge change in attitude in the US. They are now claiming leadership, but they have come into the game rather late. Do you think the US is going to be a help or a hindrance at Copenhagen?

BS: It is clear that the Obama administration is taking a very different track from the earlier administration. But we also have to understand that what the administration is doing is also driven by a domestic agenda. It’s driven by national security. They want to reduce their imports of fuel and they are also concerned about their agriculture and food supplies. They are also concerned about a third thing, which is to do with security: they are concerned that climate change might destabilise poor countries and the only force that can deal with is the US military. So, the United States is concerned that climate change is a destabilising factor globally. And you will see then migration and all kinds of problems, which they will have to deal with as the leading military force.

Then for the administration to come to an international climate negotiation and take on commitment will require that they have got their act together at home. We know this process is going on. They have got this proposal together in the House of Representatives but that has to go through the Senate. When I talk to Americans, I think they will not be ready with their domestic agenda before Copenhagen. They will come to Copenhagen with a positive attitude, but they will not come with a mandate to do a deal. Which means that any agreement here in December will probably be more principled at it will have to have a continuation once they have a real mandate to negotiate.

IH: So, that will slow the process down? After all, this was meant to be the year when the hard deals were done.

BS: Yes, that was the ambition that people had at Bali. It was a twoyear process. And it’s great to have ambitions. But it also comes up against realities. The reality is that you have an administration in the United States that has now to deal with a number of issues that we did not see in Bali two years ago. We did not see a financial crisis; we did not see a recession; we did not see rising unemployment or a collapsing auto industry in Detroit. So, the administration has to deal with these issues and that was not at all foreseen at Bali. Without dealing with these issues, there will not be a mandate to deal with climate change. The climate issue has economic implications. It’s not going to come for free and especially in the mindset of many Americans, who believe this is an extra burden. I don’t necessarily share this mindset, but that doesn’t matter: it is a mindset in the United States that this is a burden and that it will further weaken the economy and create unemployment. We should recognise that there have been some very big, unforeseen events coming into the picture.

Bjorn Stigson is president of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. 

Isabel Hilton is editor of chinadialogue

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