Warming To Climate Change

The success of the U.N’s two-week long climate conference in Bali will turn a lot on what China signs on for. The meeting is intended to get all countries working on how the world will mitigate the effects of global warming once the decade-old Kyoto agreement expires in 2012.

Kyoto was a fractious affair, with rich countries, notably the U.S., and poor ones, including China and India, shunning it because it had hard targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions from 1990’s levels that they saw as hurting economic growth. But since then the political skeptics on climate change have become a dwindling minority in the face of hard science to the contrary and business discovering the beauty of appearing green.

It is not so much that the world’s demand for energy shows is abating. The International Energy Agency forecasts that demand will have increased by half as much again by 2030 with two thirds of the increase coming from developing nations and China accounting for a third of it. But there is a new focus, in China as much as anywhere else, on the environmental impact of consuming as much energy as the world does in the way that it does.

A lot of the groundwork for what may be achieved in Bali was done at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC) summit in Sydney in early September–a gathering that included all the main players save for the European Union. That coalesced regional support for what could be called the pro-growth camp backed by the Bush administration, which has itself done a U-turn on climate change.

This approach puts technology, voluntary targets and energy efficiency at the heart of any global agreement on climate change in a way that would contain the growth of greenhouse gas admissions but still not curtail economic growth. APEC leaders agreed to work towards a 25% reduction by 2030 in energy intensity, the amount of energy used to produce a dollar of gross domestic product. Developing countries prefer this measure to absolute cuts in carbon outputs because it puts the onus for action on the big polluters like the U.S. and China.

Yet China signed on for that deal, the first time it has agreed to quantifiable targets–albeit non-binding ones. The Sydney agreement, though, is at odds with the absolute–cut targets agreed by the leaders of the eight richest countries at the G8 summit early in the year, and those are, for the most part, the core supporters of Kyoto.

China doesn’t want Kyoto-2 to wither on the vine. There is likely to be aid money for clean technologies and to adapt to the social and economic impacts of mitigating climate change. And there is a domestic political imperative driving the need to make China’s water and air cleaner. Where Beijing decides to throw its lot will greatly shape what emerges in two weeks time from the Bali meeting.

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