China Goes on the Offensive

by William Yeatman on October 29, 2008

China presents a unique problem for proponents of an international treaty to fight climate change. On the one hand, it’s the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, building three coal fired power plants every two weeks, and putting millions of newly affluent motorists on the road each year. On the other, there are still 300 million Chinese who live in wretched poverty, and economically harmful policies to fight climate change would retard growth, thereby prolonging their human misery.

For fifteen years, the U.S. and Europe disagreed on how to address this dichotomy. The EU wanted wealthy nations to act first on climate change, and set a moral example for developing countries to follow. The U.S., however, viewed China as a strategic competitor, and resisted any intentional climate commitments that would harm the U.S. economy but allowed the Chinese economy to grow unencumbered. The result was a stalemate: the EU would not act without the U.S., which refused to act without China, which prioritized economic growth over climate change. This dynamic is the fundamental reason why the Kyoto Protocol, the first international climate treaty, is such a debacle. 

But everything changed last week, when the EU signaled that it expects significant greenhouse gas emissions reductions from developing countries before it signs onto an international treaty to fight climate change. It was a profound diplomatic shift, one that aligned the EU with the U.S., and it put China squarely on the defensive. Suddenly, there was no diplomatic gridlock to protect China from emissions commitments.

This week, China countered. On Monday, Chinese officials announced that China would cooperate, but only if developed nations spent 1% of their collective GDP—about $300 billion—on the transfer of clean energy technologies to developing countries. To lend urgency to this demand, China also released a white paper warning of the catastrophic impact that climate change has already had on the Middle Kingdom. China has long held that historical emissions from developed countries are responsible for climate change, so the not-so-subtle implication of the government study is that wealthy countries have harmed China.

China looks unlikely to budge, so it appears that the EU versus U.S. versus China gridlock will give way to an EU and US versus China gridlock. For climate realists, this is bad news, because it means that there is less room for maneuver.  A party of three is much more conducive to   wrangling and intrigue of the sort that leads to prolonged inaction, whereas a party of two is a more rigid interstate relationship.

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