Is China leading the way in the battle against climate change?
Is China leading the world in battling climate change? This was the question on the table last night at China, Climate Change and Sustainability, one of the largest events so far in the Australia’s Role in the World lecture series.
It’s a question that’s not only crucial to the world debate on climate change, but also in Australian political discourse. In the lead-up to the introduction of the Gillard government’s carbon tax, opponents questioned its credibility: why should a relatively low emitter like Australia cut emissions if China isn’t? What’s the point? The assumption that China isn’t doing anything significant to combat climate change was emphatically challenged over the course of the evening at the Carrillo Gantner lecture theatre.
Dr. Dale Jiajun Wen of the Third World Network was the first to take the podium. She made the case for China as a world leader in the battle against climate change, arguing that China had been unfairly blamed for the failures of the Copenhagen summit in such a way that has caused serious damage to the overall cause.
In a presentation dense with figures and statistics, Dr. Wan compared the efforts of China and the US in curbing emissions. According to Dr. Wen, China spends a greater proportion of its GDP than the US on clean energy investment. Meanwhile, US spending on clean energy is truly dwarfed by spending on defense. Thus, Dr. Wen argued, the resources are there but the will isn’t.
In the meantime, China – a country where almost one fifth of the citizens don’t have access to clean water – is taking on a larger economic burden and receiving little acknowledgement. Dr. Wen argued that this injustice is compounded when considering that China is 85th in the world in emissions per person. Quoting Sir Nicholas Stern, Dr. Wen pointed out that when it comes to the shared resource that is “the contents of the atmosphere”, it’s difficult to come up with a fair argument as to why the wealthy should be entitled to more than the poor.
Dr. Wen went on to claim that the “China blame game” has created more Chinese climate skeptics than all the skeptics in the west combined. According to Dr. Wen, the idea that China is not willing to curb growth and is stalling worldwide action is inaccurate for now, but risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“China will likely do what the west does,” she finished, “not what the west says.”
Dr. Malte Meinshausen, climate scientist and Fellow of Melbourne University, provided a brief but insightful response. He noted the vast amount of data that Dr. Wan had presented, questioning just one of the numbers she cited (with regard to the justification for China’s decisions at Copenhagen). This led him to a discussion of a common problem in the debates around climate change: usually, he said, you are “entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.” Unfortunately, according to Dr. Meinshausen, this isn’t so in the climate debate. He pointed out how easy – or even necessary - it is to be selective in presenting information when there is such a huge amount available, and many agendas at play.
Dr. Meinshausen didn’t shy away from answering the question of the evening: is China leading the way in climate change action? Put simply: “No.”
That said, argued Dr. Meinshausen, neither the US, nor the EU, nor Australia can call themselves leaders. Those taking the most meaningful action are the smaller, poorer countries whose livelihoods are most at risk from climate change.
The power of this kind of self-interest came up again in the next address by Professor John Daley, CEO of the Grattan Institute.
Prof. Daly presented three possible methods of tackling emissions. The first is “treaties, trading, and targets”, which more or less encapsulates the current (and, as he pointed out, so far underwhelming) approach from the international community. It’s an ill-fated venture from the start, Prof. Daley argued – how can we expect to agree on a way to share “a whole pile of economic pain”? According to Prof. Daley, this method tends to lead to the blame games Dr. Wan discussed, as well as endless politicking and little substantive action.
The second approach is a co-operative one; the optimistic idea that perhaps people will work together because it’s the right thing to do. It’s unlikely but possible, said Prof. Daley, and it has happened before. The idea is that if people feel as though they know what they should do, and they see others doing it, they will be moved to action themselves. Of course, this method is problematised not only by the sheer size of the problem and the vocal minority of climate change deniers, but also by the nature of what has to happen. Using the composition of cement as an example, Prof. Daley pointed out that much of the action that would make the greatest difference is not visible, nor terribly exciting.
Finally, Prof. Daley spoke about the approach he finds most realistic: enlightened self-interest. For action against climate change to be attractive, it needs to be profitable. He argued that the recent fall in emissions in the EU is not due to an earnest desire to save the climate, but came about because of uncertainty around energy security and the economic situation. According to Prof. Daley, a broad-based carbon price and more investment in all aspects of emissions-cutting technology are required to push down the cost of carbon-saving practices. Unfortunately, as he added later in the Q&A, whoever takes the first step stands to lose while those that come after will profit. The role of the government here, especially when it comes to subsidising renewables, is crucial. Prof. Daley emphasised that pushing down the cost curve seems our best hope for combating carbon emissions, in both an Australian and Chinese context.
The final speaker, Kirsty Albion, is the campaign manager for the Australian Youth Climate Coalition. She implored the audience to realize that our export agreements and manufacturing arrangements mean that China’s emissions are Australia’s emissions. Ms. Albion argued that since Australia has the highest global emissions per person, we ought to lead the way in combating climate change. Irrespective of what China is or isn’t doing, it is irresponsible to expect poorer, larger countries to reduce carbon emissions so that wealthy Australians can continue to consume at the same unsustainable levels.
At turns inspiring and bleak, Ms Albion’s address was essentially a call to action for Australians. She warned that peak emissions need to be reached by 2015 –an unlikely prospect at this point.
Earlier in the evening, Dr. Wen pointed out that if every Chinese person achieved the standard of living of an American, we would need 1.1 Earths to sustain us. If everyone on the planet reached that same standard, we would need more than five. Ms. Albion’s plea for a rethink of our lifestyle got to the crux of the problem: are we prepared, as a nation, to accept a change in our standard of living – or can we continue to expect countries to bear the burden?
After a brief Q&A session that focused mainly on the potential of renewables, the crowd filed out with a lot to think about. China’s role in the fight against climate change is certainly significant, but the message of the night seemed to be that we should look to ourselves if we sincerely want to make a change for the better.
Catherine Dawson is in her final year of the Executive Master of Arts program at the University of Melbourne.