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No Copenhagen Déjà Vu

Oct 13, 2014
  • Wang Tao

    Resident Scholar, Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy

As the 2015 Climate Conference in Paris draws closer – the critical date that the international community previously agreed upon to reach an international climate agreement – the pressure is on. There has not been a defining success amidst the slowly unfolding negotiations and people’s nerves are fraying. More so, memories from the “Great Disappointment in Copenhagen ” cast shadows with worrying signs seen in the negotiations yet again.

The recent UN Climate summit assembled by UN General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon was the most significant political gathering on climate change since the Copenhagen Climate Conference five years ago. However, heads of a several key states were missing from this global gala, among them China, India, Russia, Canada, Australia and surprisingly Germany too – an almost exclusive league of fast growing emitters and fossil-fuel-driven economies. Their absence seemingly sent out some signals of ignorance of the event’s significance, and led to worrisome perceptions of these nations’ stance on climate change

As bold as it may sound, the one thing we learned from Copenhagen was that a full house of nation’s leaders could not deliver any ambitious targets without their strong and collective willingness to take painful but necessary actions at home. Fortunately, it does look a little different than the case of Copenhagen in 2009 if we take a closer look at domestic actions undertaken by key players today.

There has been some landscape change in a few key economies, which may change variables of the equation for the climate change negotiation later this year. China, the largest emitter who created a 4 trillion RMB economic stimulus plan in 2009 to save its economy, is now more confident and comfortable with a significantly lower growth rate. Now Beijing is more concerned with the severe environmental issues prevailing across the country. As consumption of fossil fuels, and coal in particular are responsible for city smog, China sees synergy between tackling air pollution and reducing its carbon emission.

In 2009, the US was in a financial mess, but its investment in shale gas extraction has been a part of its strong recovery, and could even make it a prospective energy exporter in a few years. Shale gas also helped the US to see the largest emission reduction in 2012 over the last decade, largely by replacing coal.

The EU is currently in a geopolitical wrestling match with Russia, and probably no better off than in 2009. The Ukraine crisis has revealed the need to accelerate development of renewable energy, so to reduce its reliance on Russia’s fossil fuel supply. A strong and ambitious climate change deal that makes risky and expensive arctic oil even more inaccessible would also be an ideal geopolitical response from the EU toward Russian energy.

As a result of unprecedented air pollution in 2013, the Chinese government published a stringent pollution mitigation plan focusing on reducing the consumption of coal and developing alternative and cleaner energy. Within the proximity of Beijing and two nearby provinces, Hebei and Shandong alone, over 80 million tons of coal consumption will be cut by 2017, more than the total coal consumption of Poland, and this is only the beginning of China’s efforts to wean from reliance on coal. In 2013, China made the highest investment in clean energy and added more hydro, wind and solar PV power capacity than any other country in the world. But greater potential of emission mitigation lies in China’s economic structural change that the Chinese leadership has pushed hard for the last few years. China’s overheated economic model, which was saturated in energy intensive heavy industries, is experiencing an inevitable cooling-down. Future development must be mainly driven by service and domestic consumption, which is much less carbon intensive. The transition is hard and painful in the near term, but also offers China the best opportunity to shape its future carbon emission trajectory.

Partly due to the help of shale revolution, the Obama administration is also taking more serious steps in domestic actions, including a historic regulation proposed by EPA this June to cut emission from the nation’s power plants by 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. Together with a new fuel efficiency standard, which would require all new vehicles in the US to get an average fuel efficiency of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, the Obama administration has declared war on the two largest sources of carbon emissions in his second term, and it looks unlikely that he would let the Paris 2015 climate deal go without his earmark.

For sure there are still huge difficulties. China has to maintain a delicate balance between economic growth and energy security, while addressing its reliance on cheap dirty coal. The US has to take a practical approach to accommodate an increasing presence of China in sharing its global leadership while its diplomatic capability continues to be constrained by what may be the worst partisan-divided congress in history.

But bilateral collaboration between the two largest emitters has the potential to address these respective concerns in both nations, and could lead to further climate collaboration and agreements. Prospects of US oil and gas export to China could certainly offer multiple benefits to both nations, improving China’s energy security while reducing the trade deficit of the US to China. However that is still chance of tomorrow. Among the items agreed during the last round of the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue was green technology collaboration. This could help China address air pollution issues while creating economic benefits for US business industries like clean heavy duty trucks, advanced small industrial boilers and green port-management. These are the important topics to be prioritized and there must also be mutual trust between the two nations, before we can see President Xi and President Obama sign for a much larger and longer commitment in Paris in 2015.


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