Global Policy Forum

China Looks Ready to Open Doors on Climate Change


By John Garnaut

October 11, 2009

To date there's been a lot said but not a lot done about the Rudd Government's ambitions to play the middle man between China and the US.

"The Australian Government has announced many times that they want to play as a bridge between developed and developing countries," a weary sounding senior Chinese climate change official told BusinessDay yesterday.

But the disequilibrium between noise and action has begun to shift - and on the issue where it is needed most. This should become apparent after the Climate Change Minister, Penny Wong, arrives in Beijing tomorrow.

Chinese sources say she has tentative appointments to meet Yu Qingtai, the foreign ministry's urbane climate change ambassador, and Xie Zhenhua, the vice-chairman of the National Development & Reform Commission (NDRC).

Yu's job is to negotiate a post-Kyoto global climate change pact. Xie's job is to tell him what he's allowed to say.

Xie is known as a climate change believer and has spent most of his career in the environmental bureaucracy. His appointment to head a new climate change policy unit within the powerful NDRC in 2007 was seen as a statement that China had begun to take climate change seriously.

Xie advises the Premier, Wen Jiabao, directly on climate change issues. Wen is himself known as an enthusiastic proponent of climate policy action.

Xie is responsible for modelling the economic impact of possible carbon reduction plans, finding the politically most-feasible and economically least-costly mechanisms for achieving those targets, and translating that research into a domestic policy response in time to save the planet.

Xie is working on China's next five year plan, to begin in 2011, which will commit China for the first time to reducing carbon dioxide emissions per unit of gross domestic product. This commitment will add to the indirect measures China has already taken to reduce emissions.

It seems Xie has been winning some arguments inside China's bureaucracy, judging by President Hu Jintao's pledge in the United States last month to commit China to cut emissions by a "notable margin" relative to GDP. Hu is also committed to China to lifting its share of renewable and nuclear fuel from 9 per cent to 15 per cent of energy needs by 2020.

"It's clearly a breakthrough to have China saying it will consider adopting a numerical target like that," says Dr Frank Jotzo, the deputy director of the Australian National University's Climate Change Institute. "That's very much more than what's been on the table so far, even if there's not yet a specific number attached to it."

Until Hu's pledge, China had committed itself to all manner of domestic energy efficiency and renewable energy targets, but had refrained from making any specific carbon reduction targets or international commitments. One reason is that there is still a latent, primordial fear in China that international commitments are designed to "trap" China and "contain" its development path.

China's climate change diplomacy took another step over the weekend with a high-profile climate change summit between Hu, Japan's Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama, and South Korea's President, Lee Myung-bak.

Wong's task in Beijing is to help prompt China to present its domestic commitments as meaningful international ones in order to provide a catalyst for the US and the rest of the world to make meaningful reductions too.

"If you were to extrapolate China's existing energy intensity reduction targets to 2010 out to 2020 and apply them to carbon intensity rather than energy intensity then you get a substantial reduction relative to business as usual," says Jotzo. "That's somewhere in the 30 per cent range."

Earlier this year, Chinese officials and advisers were scoffing at the gap between the Rudd Government's talk on climate change and its hard commitments.

But since then the Rudd Government has made two steps that have been well received at the highest levels of Chinese policy making.

The first is that Rudd lifted his maximum carbon reduction commitment from 15 to 25 per cent by 2020, conditional on an "ambitious" global agreement (which would reduce CO2 emissions to 450 parts per million). He also committed the country to having 20 per cent of its energy supplied by "renewable" sources by 2020.

The second step, which seems to have got Australia over the line in China's eyes, is Wong's recent efforts to broker a deal that would allow developing countries to register non-binding international commitments in a schedule annexed to a new climate change pact. Her suggestions should, at the margin, encourage China to make meaningful international commitments.

It's probably already too late for China and the US, the world's first and second biggest carbon emitters, to reach a deal in time for a meaningful new global treaty at Copenhagen.

But whatever the short-term policy outcome, the fact that China appears ready to open the door to Australian overtures on climate change is good for both countries.

It shows the Chinese bureaucracy is capable of being miffed at Australia's investment policies, defense posturing and human rights advocacy, while simultaneously recognizing Australian efforts to bridge the US-China divide on climate change.


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