China’s reputation after Copenhagen

In the aftermath of the disappointing Copenhagen Climate Summit, it is worthwhile to examine whether China’s reputation has been enhanced or diminished by its actions and rhetoric.

Large, multi-lateral summit meetings rarely result in the enhancement of reputations. Even if agreements are reached, compromise will have diluted so many of the initial intentions that even those states and individuals leading the deal-making will have lost some of their shine.  At Copenhagen the USA and China had the most to gain and the most to lose with respect to reputation. As the world’s largest producers of greenhouse gases, both had to show that they took the issue of climate change seriously. Yet both sets of leaders are constrained by strong constituencies back at home which see economic growth as being more important than addressing climate change.

Without doubt, it is the USA which has been the greatest disappointment. Its stated target for 2020 of a 4% cut of greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels, equivalent to 17% from 2005 levels, shows that the government, or rather Congress, continues in its failure to engage with the challenge of climate change. This contrasts with the approach of the European Union which is on track to achieve by 2020 a 20% reduction on its emissions in 1990. But does China emerge from Copenhagen with its reputation any stronger than that of the USA?

In the months leading up to the Copenhagen meeting, three major concerns were raised in the context to China: Would China agree to any targets for future emissions? Would the government demand large financial transfers from the West? And would the leadership permit external verification of emission levels?

In late November 2009 China’s government announced that by the year 2020 it would reduce the country’s intensity of greenhouse gas emissions per unit of GDP by between 40% and 45% of the levels in 2005. This unexpected offer took many by surprise and enhanced China’s reputation, at least briefly. But this announcement was qualified by the refusal to make this a legally-binding commitment and by the rejection of external verification.

The willingness to announce a target of any sort has to be welcomed and demonstrates a degree of engagement in the Copenhagen process which was not expected. The target itself elicits two contrasting reactions.

First is the widely-proclaimed view that this target is insufficiently ambitious and reflects a ‘business-as-usual’ trend. Such an assertion is supported by two observations. The first relates to the overall rate of decline. The second relates to the selection of the year 2005 for the start date. If we make the simple assumption that most of China’s greenhouse gas emissions come from energy use, and if we set aside the counter-acting effects of tree planting, then we can roughly equate emission levels with energy use. Between 1980 and 2000 China’s energy intensity declined by an average rate of about 4% per year. This is almost exactly the same as the rate implied by the emissions intensity reduction of 40-45% between 2005 and 2020. Further, the selection of the year 2005 as the start date is almost certainly not random, for this was the year that energy intensity reached a peak after a sudden surge starting in 2002. Since 2005, new policies have driven energy intensity down at an average rate of about 4% per year.

This target is made to look even less ambitious by two other considerations. First, China is taking significant steps to increase the proportion of renewable energy, natural gas and nuclear power in its energy supply mix. Second, the government has reiterated its intention to progressively change the structure of the economy to a less energy intensive form. If implemented successfully, these measures would add significantly to the rate of decline of emissions from the energy sector.

A second view is that the target of 40-45% reduction in emissions intensity may be more difficult to achieve than many think. Yes, the target is in line with past and current trends, but, as we know, all predictions are risky, especially predictions about the future. In previous columns I have examined a range of obstacles to sustaining current trends in the reduction of energy intensity in China. These include a failure to adjust the structure of the economy, the constraint imposed by the nature of the country’s primary energy resources and the continued reliance on coal, the unwillingness of the government to provide clear economic incentives to save energy, the inertia in the energy system imposed by the long lifespan of energy infrastructure, and the deficiencies in the systems for regulation.

Given the government’s preference for using administrative rather than economic instruments to govern the energy sector, it is the quality of the systems of regulation which will be a key determinant of future trends in energy use. The government may well succeed in the aim of reducing energy intensity by 20% over the period 2005 to 2010, but maintaining this trend will become progressively more difficult. This initial success has been achieved by directing efforts at a relatively small number of energy intensive enterprises. Expanding these measures across the whole economy and society will require systematic implementation at all levels of government; and, in the short term, these measures will be seen by many as undermining economic growth targets. Keeping local government officials in line with central government objectives will not be easy.

A further concern is the government’s repeated use of economic stimulus packages which focus on the energy intensive industries in order to enhance economic growth, maximise employment and support urbanisation. Each such stimulus necessarily suppresses the rate of decline of energy intensity, or even increases it, as was the case between 2002 and 2005. The onset of the current global economic recession triggered a stimulus package of this type in China at the beginning of 2009. We have yet to see what impact this has had on energy intensity. I would expect at least one further stimulus package between now and 2020.

Regardless of the credibility of the target for 2020, two other issues remained: the need for finance and the acceptance of ratification. China skilfully dealt with the first by declaring that it needed no external funding for itself, but that the developed countries must provide massive assistance to other developing countries to help them take steps to constrain emissions as well as to address the impacts of climate change. Given the government’s willingness to boast of the country’s sustained economic success, it would have been quite a loss of face to also request funds for itself.

China has indeed received substantial finance for clean and renewable energy projects in recent years, in part through the Clean Development Mechanism set up under the Kyoto Protocol. But the United Nations has recently suspended the application of the scheme to China’s wind farms on the grounds that the government was manipulating its industrial policies in order to maximise benefit from the Clean Development Mechanism.

On the point of verification, China’s government continues to insist that this is not a topic for negotiation. It is this which, in my eyes, limits the reputational gains the country may have made in the last few weeks. The government clearly hoped to emerge from the Copenhagen meeting with a reputation for leadership, not just among developing countries but also at a global level. However its failure to allow verification of the achievement of its targets can only raise the level of scepticism in the governments and societies of developed countries where openness is seen as the key to credibility, in any aspect of life. Any organisation or individual which hides information of wider societal importance is immediately suspect. The failure of China’s government to recognise this is a disappointment, and prevents it from claiming the moral high-ground.

Has China enhanced its reputation at Copenhagen? Certainly it has emerged as a clear leader among developing nations, willing to unilaterally set a target for the year 2020, declaring that it does not require external funding, and insisting that the developed countries should help other developing states. So, in the purely political sphere, China’s reputation is indeed enhanced. But within the arena of international climate change and energy policy, it should be clear that China’s government has offered little that is not ‘business-as-usual’, and its unwillingness to allow verification of its performance is also ‘business-as-usual’.

However, what really matters to the world is not what China says nor where its reputation stands, but what China does. If the government is successful in sustaining its drive for cleaner energy and greater energy efficiency, and if it exceeds its current targets for 2020, then the world will certainly be a better place and China’s reputation will indeed be enhanced. I look forward to reporting back in ten years time.

Philip Andrews-Speed is Director of the Centre for Energy and Mineral Law and Policy at the University of Dundee, Scotland.

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