China and Climate Change Negotiations Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSC

Many Northern countries were critical of the role played by China, India, South Africa and Brazil in the UN Framework Conference on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Copenhagen in December 2009 . Ed Miliband, the UK’s climate secretary at the time, in an article in The Guardian, accused China of hijacking the Copenhagen summit and “holding the world to ransom” in order to prevent a deal.


As one who attended the event, I would place more blame on the U.S. Since the          Kyoto Protocol on climate change was agreed at Kyoto, Japan in December 1997, the U.S. has refused to become involved in any serious effort to reduce greenhouse gases. The U.S. insists that everyone must cut equally at this point in time. They forget that the wealth of the U.S. and northern Europe was based for the past 100 years on intensive use of fossil fuel.  This is why the  UNFCCC talks about  “common but differentiated responsibilities” when it comes to responding to climate change.


China has unique problems combating climate change. First, as critics are quick to point out, China is now the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide. Secondly, China has surpassed Japan as the second largest economy in the world. Thirdly, China’s foreign exchange reserves, which in 2010 stands at a staggering US$2 trillion, is the highest in the world. Fourthly, China has seen rapid economic growth since the early 1980s, which lifted over 300 million people out of poverty.


In response to the above, the Chinese point out that its population is more than four times the population of the U.S.  First of all, it is important to state that China’s per capita greenhouse gas  GHG emissions are a third of the U.S. Secondly, for all the economic gains of the past three decades, China is still a relatively poor country.  It may come as a surprise to many that China’s per capita gross domestic product (GDP) ranks below the top 100 countries in the world.  In terms of social development China is 92end in the list compiled by 2009 Human Development Index of  the UN Development Programme (UNDP).  China argues that it must keep moving along the path of economic growth in order to improve the livelihoods of a further 600 million people, some of whom in 2010, live on less than a dollar a day. China claims that there is no similar level of poverty in the U.S., Europe or Japan, so expecting the Chinese to take the same steps today as countries who have built their wealth on fossil fuel is patently unfair.


Speaking during the Tianjin Climate meeting, Xie Zhenhua, China’s top negotiator said that for a country that is still developing, it is unreasonable to expect it to set limits for GHG emissions while rich nations failed to cut their own emissions. He believed that it was unfair for countries with a per capita GDP of $40,000 a year to demand that a country with a mere $3,000 per annum GDP submit to a common GHG reduction regime.[1]


Furthermore, as the work shop of the world, China is subsidizing other countries’ carbon budget. Zhao Zhogxiu, head of the International School of Business and Economics,  claims that that when a “Made in China” Barbie doll is shipped out, it leaves only one-tenth of its monetary value in China, but three-quarters of its carbon emission budget is picked up by China. So, in fact, the Chinese workshop is now subsidizing other countries which have allowed the manufacturing sector in their own countries to dwindle, because goods are available cheaply from China.[2]

In terms of its energy source, China is also at a disadvantage when compared to richer countries.  The energy supplies of these countries come from very different sources. China, on the other hand, is still very much dependent on coal. In 2008, electricity generated from coal accounted for a massive 75% of China’s power generation capacity.[3] Even though China is investing heavily in clean energy, it still expects coal to provide a significant amount of energy in the next few years. This is why it is keen to develop carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies. This process could be speeded up if wealthy countries were willing to share new technologies with China.







[1] Clifford Coonan, “Climate change talks in China generate more heat than light,” The Irish Times, October 7, 2010.

[2] Zhao Zhongxiu, “Four Obstacles to a Low-Carbon Economy,” China Today, Our Hopes for Cancun” page 50

[3] Jiao Feng, “Chinese Companies Battle Emissions,” China Today: Our Hope For Cancun, page 37.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s