In Shanghai they are busy constructing and preparing for the 2010 World Expo – which has become something of a flagstaff for Chinese resilience in the face of the global economic crisis.
But China, the “factory of the world”, is at a crossroads – hovering between further boosting their own development – and shouldering their share of responsibility for climate change and sustainability.
As an emerging economy, China is energy hungry. But ahead of the Copenhagen summit on climate change, the country doesn’t seem ready to accept binding targets to reduce CO2 emissions, fearing that this could undermine their growth rate. In particular, the Chinese seem nervous of the social impact of any strict climate obligation.
Like everyone, Chinese people want better living standards and a cleaner environment to live in. They feel that better environmental standards would automatically lead to lower greenhouse gas emissions. China is making efforts to clean up the environment, but progress has been slow. The government is aware of that and claims that they need help. But what should the developed world do?
Zhou Fengqi, from the Shanghai Academy of Science says: “Firstly developed countries should contribute to this common challenge with between 0.5% and 1% of their GDP. Secondly, developed countries should buy green technology from private companies. Thirdly, they should use their technological know-how to help developing countries.”
China became the world’s biggest carbon emitter when it overtook the USA in 2006. But the Chinese claim that the richest countries should bear the reponsibility for carbon emissions.
In the run-up to Copenhagen however, the Chinese government says that is planning to produce 15% of its energy from non fossil fuel and to reduce its “carbon intensity” levels by 40-45% by the year 2020 – although it is not clear if this would actually reduce emissions or not because no other country uses this measurement. But many Chinese scientists believe that climate change needs to be tackled.
Says Jianchen Kang, from the Shanghai Normal University: “I used to study sea-ice in the Arctic region and over the past 15 years we have seen the ice reduce by 4-6% during the summer. And by satellite we can also observe that the Arctic ice no longer reaches all the way to the Syberian coast. So now shipping can use that route as corridor between the Atlantic and the Pacific.”
US president Barack Obama and Chinese president Hu Jintao have signed a memorandum of understanding on enhancing cooperation on climate, energy and environment – although niether country seems ready to accept a legally binding agreement. Meanwhile the Chinese are raising their stakes.
Says Ambassador Song Zhe: “We very much hope that the developed countries will contribute more. Of course as China we will do our part according to our capability.”
He wants contributions in the shape of both money and technology.
Says Zhou Fengqi of the Shanghai Academy of Social Science: “When they transfer technology to China, for example by building a new power plant here, they get some emission reductions in China. According to the Clean Development Mechanism, now they can deduct the corresponding emissions amount in the developed country of origin. I think that in the future they should stop deducting emission amounts in their own country.”
The European Union considers China as an emerging country, so Brussels expects them to make their contribution by establishing rules on technology transfer from the EU to China, so as not to discourage European companies from investing in the Chinese environmental and energy sector.
Says Stavros Dimas, the European Commissioner for the Environment: “These private firms that have developed technologies will not have any incentive to carry on research and investments which are necessary in order to innovate and to produce new technologies. So the protection of the intellectual property is one of the issues that Chinese also understand that has to be taken care of.”
At the university in Ningbo, they are researching sustainable energy technologies. They also design environmentally-friendly and energy-efficient buildings. This is of course a step in the right direction but China is still inclined to prioritise economic growth over cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
Says Tiei Xueixi, from the National Centre of Atmospheric Research: “If we believe that climate change is caused by human beings then we should take action, but I believe it is too early to draw concrete conclusions on how we take action. I believe we need more information. Scientific research needs to be done more seriously.”
Says Stavros Dimas: “At the end they will receive some money especially from the application of what we have proposed them, we are discussing of sectorial crediting mechanism.”
In Brussels however, the EU the member states are still discussing who should contribute what to the 100 billion euros a year that will be needed to help developing countries fight climate change.
It is hoped that China will at least sign a non-binding framework agreement at Copenhagen. But China is not alone in fighting shy of possible economic consequences. President Obama’s promise to cut greenhouse gas emissions in the US by 17% by 2020 is not binding – and he does not plan to attend the final days of the summit when it is hoped that a successor to the Kyoto Protocol can be drawn up.