A national team for the climate

How could China – and other developing nations – consolidate a response to the climate-change crisis? Qiu Dengke interviews Li Lailai, of the Stockholm Environment Institute.

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

Li Lailai is deputy director of the Stockholm Environment Institute. She was formerly director of the Beijing Institute for the Environment and Development and chair of Leadership for Environment and Development’s China Project. Qiu Dengke interviewed her in Stockholm.

Qiu Dengke (QD): How do you view the differences between developed and developing nations when it comes to climate change?

Li Lailai (LL): Nobody can doubt that the developed nations brought about our current predicament, a crisis which humanity – rich and poor, developed and developing – must face together. To put it simply, developed nations have deprived the developing world of development opportunities.

If we overlook regions and borders and make a sweeping generalisation, we could say that the poor suffer most and have no ability to react. Sociologists would say that the difference between rich and poor is the ability to allocate resources. With climate change creating disasters and increasing the frequency of extreme weather events, the rich can allocate resources to mitigate their circumstances, while the poor can only wait for disaster to strike.

QD: This leads to our “common but differentiated responsibilities”?

LL: It is a challenge to the common wisdom of humanity. We need to ensure a decent standard of living in developing nations, and also mitigate climate change. This needs joint action, it is not something that can be tackled unilaterally – so the proposal of “common but differentiated responsibilities” is a wise one.

QD: The post-Kyoto climate-change talks have continued on that basis. What suggestions do you have for China’s stance at these talks?

LL: First, we need to clarify the different responsibilities of developed and developing nations.

Let’s start with technology transfer: undoubtedly, less populated and more technologically advanced developed nations should be aware that they have written the rules of the game, and thus have a natural advantage. But climate change cannot be tackled unless everybody has the necessary technologies – hence technology transfer is needed. The largest obstacle here is that developed governments maintain that these technologies belong to private companies, and that governments cannot interfere in the market-led exchange of technology. But this is merely an excuse and avoids responsibility. Governments need to take action on climate change, removing intellectual property and other trade barriers, so that developing nations can get the technology to combat climate change – or there will be no joint action to speak of.

Second, there are finance issues. This is somewhat easier: there are huge potential markets for new technology in developing nations, and developed nations can invest here. There is massive potential, but how it will actually work needs discussion – and that’s the point of the negotiations. My suggestion is that developing nations – without making commitments to emissions cuts – adopt national sustainable development goals, with voluntary emissions reductions in exchange for technology and funds. This will allow the strengths of both parties to complement each other, and will be acceptable to both. The achievements of China’s three decades of economic reform provide lessons for today’s reform in energy saving and emissions reduction. This time around, China could achieve even larger-scale technological advances.

QD: International criticism of China currently focuses on the country’s supposed avoidance of negotiations and its failure to take concrete action on addressing climate change. How do you view those criticisms?

LL: I don’t know about the issue of avoiding negotiations. As for taking concrete action, I don’t think there is any basis to western criticism of China on these grounds. In the eleventh Five-Year Plan [2006 to 2010], China set a target for reducing its carbon intensity by 20%, which meets the call for measurable, reportable and verifiable targets in the Bali road map.

On the issue of negotiations, I think there is a reason that developed countries have their view. China does not have an overall plan, rooted in its own interests, to deal with climate change. It does not have a unified technology platform; it does not have a trading platform linked to international markets; it lacks a “national team”.

The rules of the game, as they stand, were set by the developed nations and are best represented by the European Union. Countries participate in climate-change politics at the national level, whether they are in high-level negotiations or addressing detailed technical issues (such as setting standards and market entry mechanisms). Most countries create technological, economic and political groupings to play to their strengths. There is only one reason for that: national economic interest. Therefore, China should have its own “national team” and set up similar groupings to represent its own best interests.

Take energy saving and emissions reduction as an example. China’s binding target to reduce carbon intensity by 20% is a measurable emissions reduction plan – it couldn’t be more concrete. China could use this to invite developed countries to share the associated cost burden. Incomplete statistics put government and business spending towards that target in the first two years of the eleventh Five-Year Plan [2006 and 2007] at 80 billion yuan (US$11.7 billion). If we set similar targets for the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth Five-Year Plans, then even with quite rapid economic growth, carbon dioxide emissions will peak by 2030 or earlier. During the current plan, China has made massive investments in independent, voluntary emissions reductions. To quote one local government official, “we will do whatever it takes to complete the national targets.” It is not just the Chinese that benefit from those investments: it is a public good for humanity as a whole. Should China, a developing nation, continue to take these independent undertakings? Can it afford to bear these costs? If international climate-change cooperation does not come into play at this point, is the Bali road map anything more than empty rhetoric?

Qiu Dengke is a reporter for Private Economy News

Li Lailai is deputy director of the Stockholm Environment Institute. She was formerly director of the Beijing Institute for the Environment and Development and chair of Leadership for Environment and Development’s China Project. She has long been involved in environment and development research and education.

Produced in association with Rutgers Climate and Social Policy Initiative

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