China’s Double-Edged Pact

Whether China is a climate hero or a climate villain is a matter of polarized debate. At one extreme, the world’s biggest carbon-emitter is portrayed as a wasteful bogeyman that obstructs efforts to halt global warming and “steals” clean-tech jobs through unfair practices. At the other extreme, people see Beijing’s policies as the planet’s best hope: With its aggressive plans to green its economy, backed by the mighty Communist machine, China is the foremost investor in renewable energy. The truth lies in between.

But recently China has done a canny job of presenting itself in the latter, greener light. The main reason for the more hopeful mood among some climate watchers is an accord signed by China and the United States during President Obama’s trip to Beijing in November. To surprise and applause, China pledged that its emissions would peak by around 2030 and that, by the same year, alternative energy would provide around 20 percent of its needs. (For its part, the United States said it would cut emissions by 26-28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025.)

China also promised to cap its burning of coal — the main culprit for the country’s severe air-pollution problems — by 2020. Chinese officials have also reiterated plans to set up a national program for trading carbon permits, likely to be a cornerstone of its antipollution efforts, by as soon as 2016.

Indeed, China’s commitments last month laid the groundwork for the deal reached on Sunday at the annual climate talkfest in Lima, Peru. As part of a global accord, developing countries agreed collectively for the first time to accept limits on their own emissions.

As all this shows, cleaning up their smog-ridden cities is a top priority for China’s leaders, who are anxious to quell public disquiet over dangerous pollution. Yet they also strongly guard their national sovereignty. So China’s willingness to sign up to an emissions cap in an international forum bolsters hopes for a worldwide pact next year in Paris building off the progress made in Lima. (Previous attempts to forge agreement, at Copenhagen in 2009, stumbled in the face of intractable disputes between the developed and developing worlds over who should foot the bill for preventing dangerous levels of warming.)

But seen in another light, China’s latest pronouncements have skillfully shifted pressure onto other developing countries by making commitments that may appear bold but in fact don’t go far beyond Beijing’s earlier pledges.

And the timing, just weeks before the Lima conference, was ideal: Much of the recent media coverage consequently focused on India and other polluters that are reluctant to act against global warming. They will find it harder to resist demands to do more; China, meanwhile, is free to call on rich countries to pony up more money to combat climate change.

Not a bad thing, perhaps, if China were committing to deeper sacrifices than those it has already made. But the latest Chinese goals are not ambitious.

China is already on course to draw 15 percent of its energy from renewables by 2020, as it has long intended; aiming for 20 percent by 2030 is hardly a stretch. Based on the growing weight Chinese policy makers give to combating pollution, many researchers had predicted that emissions would peak around 2030. My colleagues and I at the Economist Intelligence Unit were already forecasting coal use to plateau by 2020. (How high emissions will climb before they crest is another vital question: On this, China remains quiet.)

Thus, China’s plans look suspiciously like a clever recasting of forecasts as (nonbinding) targets.

Skepticism is also in order when it comes to the methods by which China means to address climate change. Even some charged with running China’s current experiments in carbon trading fear that rushing the establishment of a national system by 2016, as proposed, is impossible. Seven carbon-trading pilot programs have made patchy progress. Some started only after long delays.

Even in mainland China’s chief financial hub, all is not smooth. During a recent visit to the Shanghai climate exchange, my host apologized for the lack of trading. Following the end of the first annual “compliance” period in June, by which time companies had to adhere to emissions limits or buy extra permits to pollute, activity had for a while dried up altogether. Prices sagged at disappointingly low levels. Such teething problems are unsurprising, but they counsel caution about the pace at which a national program should be rolled out.

Stirring deeper doubts are China’s notorious problems with transparency and statistical accuracy. Could emissions be rigorously monitored? In Lima, China fended off calls for electronic monitoring of its emissions-reduction plans as part of the United Nations process. Owing partly to Chinese resistance, the weakened Lima accord failed to set out strict rules on the information countries must give about their emissions-reduction commitments under a new treaty.

Then there is the symbiotic relationship between the government and state-owned firms. Would permits to pollute be fairly apportioned and scrupulously enforced? “The last thing we want is a trading scheme with Chinese characteristics,” said a veteran carbon financier.

None of this is to deny China’s efforts on the environment. But Beijing needs to do more. If it is serious about curbing global warming, China should spell out how high it expects its emissions to rise and strive to set an earlier timing for that peak. For outsiders dealing with China on climate change the motto must be praise but verify — and keep pushing for more.

Martin Adams is the energy editor for The Economist Intelligence Unit.

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