China and America on the Environment: You first?

Frank Ching | 12 Jun 2020

The recent G8 meeting chaired by Germany that focused on climate change, attended also by five of the world's biggest developing countries, marks a significant step forward in a battle for nothing less than the survival of humanity on this planet.

For one thing, the European Union, Canada and Japan agreed to halving greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, compared to 1990 levels. This compares with the Kyoto Protocol target of reducing emissions by 5 percent by 2012.

Although the United States—the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases—did not commit itself to this target, it did agree to "seriously consider" it, as did Russia. This is a step forward since previously President George W. Bush had been implacably opposed to any emission reduction targets.

Moreover, the role of the United Nations in combating this global problem has been strengthened. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon announced immediately that he would convene a special high-level meeting in New York on climate change on September 24.

This will be followed by a meeting in Bali in December under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to decide what to do after 2012, when the Kyoto Protocol expires.

The inclusion of China, India, Brazil, South Africa and Mexico—major developing economies—also meant that the developed and developing countries are now engaging each other in a dialogue to determine what long-term strategies should be adopted and what their respective roles will be in tackling global warming.

The renewed momentum to deal with the climate change issue, which affects all countries, developed as well as developing, is welcome since scientists have warned that irreversible climate changes with very adverse effects can only be prevented if the countries of the world take immediate action.

The United States, which normally assumes a position of leadership, has on this issue decided to be a follower. It wants to be sure that China will cut emissions before agreeing to do the same. But China points out that on a per capita basis it emits much less than OECD countries.

Besides, historically, China has contributed less than 8 percent of the total emissions of carbon dioxide from energy use since 1850, while the United States is responsible for 29 percent and Western Europe 27 percent, according to United Nations data.

Since there is no doubt that the developed countries are the ones that pumped out the greenhouse gases that are causing global warming now, China feels that it is only right that they be the ones to spearhead any move to clean up the environment.

While Beijing is correct on its facts, it must also realise that the developed countries are not going to allow it to pump vast quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere while they cut back drastically. Besides, if it wants a voice in the upcoming negotiations, it has to be willing to take steps to curb its own emissions. But China is unlikely to agree to any curtailment of emissions until the United States takes dramatic action.

In all likelihood, China would agree to cut emissions through improving energy efficiency and applying advanced technology rather than jeopardise its economic growth.

This was the message in a national plan to address climate change released by China last week.

There is already general agreement on the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities" of developed and developing countries, with the G8 countries taking the lead.

At the G8 meeting, President Hu Jintao made it clear that China and other developing countries will continue to give priority to economic growth. "To meet their development goals" he said, "developing countries need to consume more energy."

China has voluntarily taken such steps as seeking to raise energy efficiency and supporting renewable energy resources. It has set energy-efficiency goals but, last year, it only succeeded in reducing energy use by 1 percent, falling far short of the 4 percent target.

Besides, China's situation is unusual because a substantial portion of its emissions result from its production of goods that are supplied to developed countries. In any accounting, a portion of China's emissions should be assigned to developed countries. This should reduce China's burden on cutting back of emissions.

The United States and China should not play the game of Alphonse and Gaston, insisting that the other party act first. After all, they are in the same boat and neither can afford to allow it to capsize.

Frank Ching is a Hong-Kong based commentator. 

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