News about the US-China climate change deal was met with an equal measure of praise and doubt. Many observers cheered the fact that the world’s two largest economies had come together on an issue as important as climate change and vowed to take real, measurable steps in curbing emissions. Still others saw the announcement as a paper tiger, an agreement that allowed Beijing to gain some credibility while having no intention of ever following through with the terms of the deal.
The National Review was particularly virulent in making the latter point. It wrote that there “was abundant reason for skepticism” and that “China rarely keeps its promises on environmental issues.” It cites China’s frequent shifting or delaying of emissions reduction targets, including those made in Copenhagen and Doha.
There are two issues at play here. Firstly, does China truly not care about increasing renewable energy capacity and reducing emissions? Secondly, does China agree to international emissions reduction agreements that it knows it will never stick to? The latter is almost certainly true. Beijing has regularly sought to tilt the playing field in its favor on a number of international issues, and climate change is no exception. Reports from the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit in 2009 said that Chinese delegates sought to “block the open negotiations for two weeks, and then ensure that the closed-door deal made it look as if the west had failed the world's poor once again.” This strategy worked, the Western countries were savaged, and China managed to remove hard goals for some vague notions to codify emission cuts in the future.
But this new deal smacks of something different. For instance, few of the reports about it have noted that the US is conceding far more than China is, which is normal giventhat the United States emits much more greenhouse gas than China. The Economist also picks up on an interesting tidbit. The targets being set for China in this latest deal are very similar to the ones China’s internal findings have recommended. As The Economist notes “He Jiankun of Tsinghua University reckoned that China’s carbon emissions would peak by “around 2030”, as economic growth is slowing and urbanization will have mostly run its course by then.” That 2030 date is the one by which China said its emissions would peak in the deal with the US, just five years later than the 2025 date that had been sought for by Washington.
The fact that China is seeking to obey these emissions reduction recommendations is not a surprise. As has been widely reported this year, protests about air, land, and water pollution are getting more common and more violent across China. 75% of the nation’s waterways suffer from severe pollution, rice crops are laced with heavy metals, and children are dropping dead during light physical exercise in schools. The 2013 Report on the State of the Environment in China reported 712 “abrupt environmental incidents”, 31% up on 2012.
This has led Beijing to an innovative if wise conclusion. Increasing renewable energy production and cutting greenhouse gases are seen as acts of good global citizenship in many countries. In China, they are something more: a means of holding onto power. In April, a new law was passed, granting authorities sweeping new powers to punish polluters, the first new environmental protection piece of legislation in well over two decades.
The Communist Party of China cares little about international criticism of its pollution. However, protests from its own people are to be taken seriously. This means the deal at APEC seems to point to a new strategy among the CPC elite. If they are going to reduce emissions targets at home to avoid civil unrest, they might as well pick up some international credit for it.
By Chris Dalby of Oilprice.com
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