THE PARIS CLIMATE talks — formally the United Nations 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) — starting on November 30 will be a political bun fight in which China as the world’s biggest polluter will be at the centre. But the how, who and who pays arguments over environmentally sustainable development are only another front in the wider competitive-cooperative struggle between North and South for global influence.
Whatever the outcome of the Paris meeting, China will come off a winner.
The goal of COP21 is for more than 190 countries to agree a global and legally binding treaty that will let the world avoid the worst impacts of climate change. In practice, this means an enforceable plan to keep global warming below 2℃ by cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
The countries that account for 80% of the world’s emissions, three-quarters of which are accounted for by China, the United States, the 28 European Union members and India, have submitted plans for how they will play their part. However, these Intended Nationally Determined Contributions in aggregate fall short of what is needed to meet the 2℃ target.
China’s INDC’s are conventional enough: a speeding up of the transformation of energy production and consumption to mitigate increasing greenhouse gas emissions; continuing improvements in energy efficiency as the economy is rebalanced in a sustainable way; and increases in forest carbon sinks.
In hard numbers:
- Peak CO2 emissions to be reached by 2030 at the latest;
- Cut carbon intensity by 60-65% from 2005 levels;
- 20% of energy produced by renewables by 2030 (10% in 2013); and
- Increase forest coverage by 4.5 billion cubic meters compared to 2005.
These targets build on ones set out in 2009. That year, Beijing said that by 2020 it would lower carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 40-45% from 2005’s levels, increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 15%, and increase forests by 40 million hectares and the forest stock volume by 1.3 billion cubic meters compared to 2005 levels.
In its INDC, Beijing claimed that by 2014, it had achieved:
- 33.8% lower carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP than the 2005 level;
- 11.2% non-fossil fuels share in primary energy consumption;
- Forested area and forest stock volume increased by 21.6 million hectares and 2.188 billion cubic meters respectively compared to the 2005 levels;
- 300 gigawatts of installed hydropower capacity — 2.57 times of that in 2005;
- 95.81 gigawatts of on-grid wind power capacity — 90 times of that of 2005);
- 28.05 gigawatts of solar power installed capacity of — 400 times of that of 2005; and
- 19.88 gigawatts of nuclear power installed capacity — 2.9 times of that for 2005.
- Also, China has initiated pilot carbon-trading markets in seven provinces and cities and low-carbon development pilots in 42 provinces and cities, with a goal of having a nationwide cap-and-trade market in place by 2017.
All of which is real progress, though not sufficient to have kept up fully with the growing economy, as the skies over Beijing bear daily witness.
China’s COP21 targets still look ambitious, unlikely to be achieved without either technological advances both to improve energy intensity (units of energy required per unit of GDP created) and to help nuclear energy replace coal-fired power generation, or a slowdown in the economy to reduce power demand. On some estimates, the later would mean China’s GDP growth rate slowing to at least 4.5% a year for a sustained period in the decade to 2030.
All of which helps to explain why the politics of climate control will be so confrontational at COP21 behind the feel-good words the politicians will spout.
As de facto spokesnation for developing economies, China wants the rich nations to carry the much more of the burden of reducing emissions than poor ones. Its argues that historically the developed countries have gone through their industrial revolutions and so should not expect developing economies to have artificial constraints put on them as they now go through theirs.
The motives for such a position fall along a spectrum running from fairness — developed nations shouldn’t get a ‘free ride’ on pollution just because it occurred centuries ago — to nefariousness — the old world powers are using climate change to hold back the development of new rivals arising in the East and South.
Thus, China wants ‘ambitious economy-wide absolute quantified emissions reductions targets’ for developed countries, while calling only for ‘enhanced mitigation actions’ on the part of developing economies such as itself. Furthermore, it wants developed countries to provide the finance, technology and capacity-building for developing nations to do so.
The proposed financing is scarcely chump change. Beijing wants it to start at $100 billion in 2020 and then increase yearly, with the monies coming from the West’s public purses, not private sources. It proposes that this financing is channeled through the UN’s Green Climate Fund, a somewhat misbegotten five-year-old UN agency that would be made directly accountable to COP21.
So far, the fund has barely raised more money than needed to cover its set-up costs and is wracked by internal disagreements over what it should be funding and how. As of May this year it had received pledges of only $10.2 billion towards its own $100 billion-by-2020 target.
Developing nations don’t like the fund’s focus on private investment, which in practice means Western investing institutions. Environmentalists don’t like its acceptance of fossil-fuel investments, and no one likes the fund’s governance, hence Beijing’s effort to switch it to public funding and put it under COP21’s authority.
The third area of contention at Paris beyond targets and where the money is coming from will be technology. Beijing wants COP21 to impose a clear requirement on developed nations to transfer technologies and R&D to developing countries ‘based on their technology needs’. That would give developing economies, including China, carte blanche to demand virtually any technologies from the developed nations that it wants.
China has need of such technologies, given the challenges of its COP21 proposals. It will not be able to displace coal from the central place it now occupies in the energy mix without a significant increase in nuclear power generation. China is developing an indigenous nuclear industry apace, but its third-generation technology remains unproven, its capacity for making key components for reactors is uneven, and it has limited abilities in spent fuel reprocessing and storage.
Free licence to demand technology transfers from Washington and Paris to tackle any and all of those problems so its nuclear industry can make itself internationally competitive is not going to be acceptable to the West.
However, COP21 will likely yield an agreement, not the vague promises of previous UN climate summits. China will, of course, not get everything it is calling for going in. Binding hard 2030 targets on developed nations are unlikely, as are commitments by the West to any significant public funding of the Global Climate Fund or carte blanche technology transfers.
A mechanism for strengthening national carbon reduction targets every five years is likely. Presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama agreed when they met in September to support such an approach, calling for COP21 to establish reporting and accountability that would strengthen emission reduction targets over time.
That, along with some concrete steps towards mobilizing financial and technical resources to assist the power countries to develop sustainable low-carbon and climate resilient economies would be achievement enough in Paris.
These outcomes would give Beijing plenty of advantages. It would get flexibility in recalibrating its tough 2030 domestic emissions targets and constrain Western efforts to impose a World Bank IFC-type private-sector financing model on climate mitigation.
At the same time, it would be free to expand its bilateral climate lending channels such as its South-South Climate Fund. Through its other burgeoning channels such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the BRICS’ development bank, and its Silk Road Fund, it can position itself as a key player in global low-carbon investment through its overseas infrastructure and project finance.
With that would come another broad, long-term ratcheting up of Beijing’s global clout, and especially if the next U.S. administration is a more isolationist and climate-change-rejecting Republican one.