Is China Unwilling to Play the Climate Negotiation Game?

While the embattled Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change may have been the leading climate-related news the past couple weeks, of more importance to the international negotiations were two meetings at opposite ends of the globe. A week ago Saturday, China and Japan held a one-day ministerial level meeting in Beijing to discuss economic matters, among them their approaches to climate change. Then at the end of last week, experts and environmental ministers from some 45 nations concluded a two-day meeting in Geneva on climate finance, a contentious issue that developing nations consider instrumental for crafting a binding international climate agreement.

Even though the climate summit in Cancun is unlikely to produce a treaty, internationalists hope these side meetings–and the final formal talks in Tianjin, China scheduled for November–will produce the understanding needed to move closer to an international agreement in Mexico at the end of the year. Will the recent gatherings in China and Switzerland foster the teamwork necessary to construct a consensus approach to combating climate change? It is too soon to judge the outcome of the financial talks (more on those later this week), but the news from China suggests that it is sticking to its unilateral game plan.

The Japanese connection

Although China and Japan are deeply connected trading partners, the Asian giants sit on opposite sides of the climate debate. While China is the world’s undisputed king of carbon emissions and an emerging superpower, it is also a poor, developing nation eager to protect the right to continue its fossil-fueled growth. Rich Japan’s smaller economy may now produce fewer greenhouse gases than China’s, but the Japanese–like the Americans and Europeans and the rest of the rich world–bear a greater historic responsibility for the current level of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere.

In spite of their differences, the two countries have a history of climate cooperation. During a state visit to Tokyo in May 2008, Chinese President Hu Jintao and his Japanese counterpart Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda signed a Joint Statement on Climate Change. The document, which the recent Beijing meetings reaffirmed, essentially endorses the Chinese negotiation position at last year’s Copenhagen summit with a few Japanese caveats and clarifications.

In its most sweeping and controversial section, the agreement says that “the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change [UNFCCC] and its Kyoto Protocol are the appropriate and effective framework for international cooperation to address climate change.” It then goes on to enshrine “the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities.” These innocuous sounding sentences have emerged as two of the biggest points of contention between rich and poor countries since the disappointing outcome in Copenhagen.

Another venue

First, some countries have begun to question whether the UN is even the right venue for addressing climate change. The hastily assembled Copenhagen Accord is a concrete example of an agreement made possible by working outside of the UN process: The last-minute compromise was produced by a handful of powerful nations (among them, China) that gathered behind closed doors when it became clear that the UNFCCC had produced nothing.

China has since distanced itself from the road map laid out in the non-binding Accord. Instead, it insists that negotiators build on the Kyoto Protocol. The 1997 Kyoto treaty was drafted in a more collaborative process and at a time when the carbon footprint of China was too small to worry about its impact. (With China now the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gasses that is clearly no longer the case.)

On the other hand, some developed nations have suggested crafting more agreements like the Copenhagen Accord. Rich but increasingly marginalized on the international diplomatic stage, EU governments–all of which were locked out of the last minute negotiations in Copenhagen–have begun to look beyond the UN. “It is it is now necessary to bring a new dynamic to the international negotiation process,” they said at the conclusion of the EU’s 2010 spring summit. Although EU leaders voiced support for the UNFCCC, they also promised to pursue climate agreements bilaterally and within the G20, the same group of rich countries that are most responsible for causing the climate crisis.

Not our responsibility

The second controversial statement Japan reaffirmed is China’s commitment to “common but differentiated responsibilities.” As D.S. Rajan of the Chennai Centre for China Studies explains in the East Asian Review, this concept is “crucial to understand the [Chinese] point of view, which fixes responsibility for climate change on the developed nations.” Indeed, in a speech last month at Peking University, China’s lead climate negotiator Yu Qingtai characterized the Copenhagen summit as a “struggle over ‘common but differentiated responsibilities.’ Developing nations ultimately withstood huge pressure from their developed counterparts, defended their own right to develop and achieved a positive, albeit intermediate, outcome from the conference.” In a commentary piece on Yu’s speech, Deborah Seligsohn of the World Resources Institute points out that his “equity concerns are quite real. China’s per capita emissions are still well below those of the United States.”

While China’s negotiating stance is based on justifiable concerns about inclusivity and economics, none of that matters in the face of hard scientific reality. The melting of the Greenlandic ice sheets and acidifying of the oceans’ coral won’t pause to wait for global consensus or economic parity. If Chinese negotiators, aided by the acquiescent Japanese, were to have their way, the politically difficult emission cuts made in the rich world could be swamped by dirty growth in the Basic countries (Brazil, South Africa, India, and China) causing global temperatures to rise well above the two degrees Celsius scientists believe is the maximum life as we know it can be safely maintained. While the developed world and nouveau riche emerging giants might be wealthy enough to protect themselves from the most devastating impacts of a changing climate, the poorest nations would be left totally defenseless.

In his speech, Yu accused rich nations of using “the future of mankind… as a bargaining chip” unlike China which is unilaterally reducing its emissions per capita. What he failed to acknowledge and Japan failed to point out in its recent meeting with China is that none of their efforts matter in the absence of a global deal. China is not only sitting at the poker table, they have the most chips: They are the world’s biggest greenhouse polluter which is, due to their authoritarian tendencies, something they could rapidly change. The comments of Yu and the results of its summit with Japan suggest that China is not willing to play the game, which ensures that any pot won in Cancun will be less valuable than it could have been with Chinese involvement.