“I openly call for emissions cuts” (2)

In the second section of a two-part interview, Liu Jianqiang and Yi Shui talk to Hu Angang about how China’s climate-change policy is formed, and how it can change.

[Produced in association with Rutgers Climate and Social Policy Initiative]

chinadialogue: Many Chinese people who oppose a commitment to emissions cuts say that to do so would harm China’s interests and slow development. This is also the view of many of your critics.

Hu Angang: There would be no loss to China. In fact, it’s a huge opportunity. Twenty years ago, in national situation reports such as “Survival and development” and “The ecological deficit”, I first proposed a sustainable development strategy. In 1994 this became the national strategy. Then, at the start of this millennium I proposed the concept of “environmentally friendly development”. This is actually a Chinese invention: our ancestors spoke about nature and man as one. Environmentally friendly development is proactive, sustainable and of benefit to green industries and green power, and thus it presents huge business opportunities. It is based on social needs and market mechanisms, unlike the idea of sustainable development, which relies on the role of government. Also, I am very aware that we need to launch a fourth industrial revolution. The first two industrial revolutions were lead by the developed nations, with China nowhere to be seen. In the information revolution, China was originally left behind – but now it is in hot pursuit. This time round, we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the developed nations on the starting line of the green revolution. Mastery of green technologies will be vital, and the development of green industries will provide core competitiveness. If we fail to see that, we let down our descendants.

I have written several articles over the past few years that suggest China makes an environmental contribution to the world. This echoes Mao Zedong’s statement in 1956 that in the twenty-first century, China would make a contribution to the world. He never specified what kind of contribution, but I do: a green one. China’s leaders have already stated they will make a “peaceful contribution”, but that alone is inadequate – there must also be an environmental contribution.

China should play a larger, positive role in international affairs. An editor at The Economist asked me quite a specific question: “What can China do to restore the economy as quickly as possible – and thus promote recovery of the global economy?” In the past, when humanity faced disaster or crisis, the world would never look to China to play any kind of role. But this financial crisis has been different, in a way that would have been unimaginable before. Similarly, the world’s gaze has again turned to China when tackling global climate change. And I believe that the financial crisis is a temporary one; climate change is the true threat. We need to ask what the most important challenge is, and what the most pressing task is. The most pressing tasks are not always the most important challenges, which are often ignored due to the perceived urgency of the former. The financial crisis has weakened people’s awareness of the greater threat to humanity. Look at the two recent summits in Washington last November and London this April. There was little mention of climate change. This year is crucial – we must see consensus, joint undertakings and action at Copenhagen.

An example of successful joint action was the Millennium Summit in 2000. Consensus was reached on poverty reduction, and humanity agreed on the Millennium Development Goals, of which the first is to reduce absolute poverty to half of 1990 levels by 2015. China achieved its part in this undertaking early – without that contribution, the world could not meet its target. China’s success led to global success.

History again offers us a rare opportunity. Humanity faces a grave threat, and as the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, China will play a decisive role in the success or failure of joint action. I hope the Chinese leaders will sign a deal at Copenhagen, just as Jiang Zemin signed on to the Millennium Development Goals in 2000.

cd: Have China’s leaders seen your reports on climate change?

HA: They have received them. My national situation reports could constitute a kind of political pressure. I have made it explicit that on such a crucial global issue, a 1% error in China’s decision-making will result in total global failure. China could bear great responsibility for any failure to reach an agreement at Copenhagen. Speaking in the Czech Republic on May 20, premier Wen Jiabao called for positive results at Copenhagen. That was gratifying to hear, but it still needs to be proven in practice.

cd: One scholar in the government told us that people like yourself can play a very important role. Politicians largely get their information from reports published by the Chinese Meteorological Administration, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the National Development and Reform Commission and the ministries. They then look to opinions from academics. They get a lot of information from within the system, but important academics play a balancing role.

HA: I have published seven national situation reports on climate change in the last two years. I don’t do pure scientific research; climate change isn’t a purely scientific issue. I have seen very clearly the historical trends and the international trends. If this administration doesn’t take action, then the next will have to. This issue is always raised when our leaders meet foreign politicians – it’s unavoidable. I’ve put myself in their position and felt the international pressure they are under. We can’t claim that as a developing nation we don’t have to accept responsibility. The Millennium Development Goal I mentioned earlier is one example of success – and I have advised them to look at what Jiang Zemin did, and also to look at Deng Xiaoping. The implication is that they must not let this opportunity pass.

cd: How is climate-change policy formed at the moment? What institutions work together to produce policy?

HA: The formation of climate-change policy is not as open, transparent and democratic as, for instance, the drafting of the eleventh Five-Year Plan. It is discussed internally within a small number of departments – and that is very rare. With such a major issue, it is wrong not to seek expert opinions, and it is in breach of the working principles of the State Council. The fourth article of the principles is clear: policy-making by the State Council and its ministries must include public participation and expert consultation. When the ministries request that the State Council make important decisions, the necessity, feasibility and legality of the policy must be examined by expert institutions. Relevant authorities or localities must be consulted; in cases where the public interest is affected, public opinion must also be solicited – if necessary, through public hearings.

However, I’ve never attempted to influence the ministries. It is enough to influence the nine members of the Politburo. The ministries have never been major policy-makers, they only provide information. I need to break that monopoly on information, to compete with them. They provide their information, I provide mine – and not just to one person, to all nine. Central policy-making is handled by the Politburo, not by one individual: it’s not like it was in the era of Mao, Deng or Jiang. Now there are policy-making mechanisms with democracy, political consultation and votes. Your influence over those nine people is your influence over the policy-makers. That is not to say that they do accept my views and suggestions – that’s a different matter. But I have presented them in writing. That’s very important: the policy-makers don’t just need information, they need to hear both sides. The former premier Zhu Rongji and the current premier Wen Jiabao have both said that experts have a duty to provide these materials. So I do – I just hope they don’t find it troublesome. I joke – but we can provide valuable information. Sometimes I read chinadialogue, if necessary I quote it.

cd: On May 20, the government published China’s Position on the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference. One expert told us that he felt the official attitude was still very firm.

HA: That document wants developed nations, who represent less than 20% of the world’s population, to cover the costs for the rest of the world. It basically says: if developed countries won’t pay for it, we won’t reduce our emissions. That position might garner political support from some developing nations, but there are different kinds of developing countries – many island nations and ecologically impoverished countries are in opposition. If this is the position, the Copenhagen talks will fail – with no consensus or agreement. I do not know how likely that is, however, as Wen Jiabao has said that China will promote cooperation. We can only watch. Every country has put forward its policy: US president Barack Obama has put forward his; the European Union has put forward very clear policies; and now China stands alone. With global policy you need to compromise and make concessions – to be rational, pragmatic and practical.

Hu Angang is one of China’s best-known economists. He is professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Tsinghua University and the director of the Centre for China Study, a leading policy think-tank. Hu has worked as the chief editor for China Studies Report, a circulated reference for senior officials.

PART ONE: How should China deal with climate change?

Produced in association with:

Homepage image of Hu Angang, by Chinese Society for Environmental Sciences