For President Obama to make good on his promise to stop the oceans from rising, he needs China's Communist Party to agree to curb its CO2 emissions at the UN's Climate Conference in Paris. This it will never do.
China's Communist Party knows that to stay in power -- its highest priority -- it must maintain the economic growth rates that have raised the incomes of much of its population and kept opposition at bay. Curbing fossil fuel use, China's leaders understand, would dampen its already faltering growth and provide an existential threat to their rule. While they may talk a good game at the UN's Paris talks, they will make no binding commitments to reduce C02.
Talking a good game on climate change will do more than deflect criticism from the West. It will also bring in billions in climate aid from the U.S. and other Western countries, and improve China's international standing. Talking a good game will also serve Obama's interests. He and Chinese President Xi signed a much-ballyhooed announcement last November, promising to produce a global agreement in Paris. In this, Obama's last best opportunity to claim achievements on climate change, he will do whatever is necessary to ensure the conference culminates with grand statements and an agreement among the world's leaders. What will be necessary is cash.
The cash is already forthcoming: by the U.S., which promised $3 billion; by Canada, which promised $2 billion; by Japan, which promised $1.5 billion; by the U.K., which promised $1.2 billion; and by France and Germany, which each promised just over $1 billion. These sums are in response to China's demand of $100 billion a year by 2020 for itself and the rest of the developing world, after which the West is expected to up the amount to one per cent of its GDP. America's contribution alone would then be some $230 billion annually and rising, Canada's some CAD $25 billion annually and rising, or CAD $3,000 for a family of four.
Because China holds all the cards at Paris -- as the world's leading CO2 emitter, it knows the success of the talks depends entirely on the bones it will deign to throw to the West -- it will also squeeze the West diplomatically.
China sees its role at the talks -- what it says it really wants to do and intends to do well -- is to organize a Third World lobby to hold the West accountable based on "the principles of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities." The differentiated responsibilities require the developed countries to commit to legally binding CO2 reductions while the developing countries, subject to no legally binding targets, would merely commit to take "enhanced mitigation actions" funded by developed countries.
As China sees it, the developing countries have already done more than their share in mitigating climate change. "Their contribution to global mitigation efforts is far greater than that by developed countries," it states. "Their further actions are dependent on additional finance, technology and capacity-building support provided by developed countries." Paris thus provides China with a stage to present itself as the Third World's champion, establishing itself as its leader and defender.
At the same time as China demands these billions to combat climate change, it claims the moral high ground by laying the blame for climate change squarely on Western development. "Human activities since the Industrial Revolution, especially the accumulated carbon dioxide emissions from the intensive fossil fuels consumption of developed countries, have resulted in significantly increasing the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases, exacerbated climate change primarily characterized by global warming," the Chinese government stated in a June submission to the UN's Framework Convention on Climate Change, in explaining that the Third World now bears the brunt of the consequences.
The West leapt ahead at the expense of the developing world, China argues. It is thus unconscionable that the West would now expect China and other countries that have not yet reached Western levels of affluence to bear the cost of cleaning up the West's mess. As China likes to note, countries in the West did not begin to address their greenhouse gas emissions until they reached levels of affluence of $30,000 to $40,000 per capita. Yet they have the effrontery to insist that poor countries with per capita incomes one-tenth as great compromise their own development in aid of the rich countries.
China's view of Western responsibility is hard for the West to refute, since it conforms to the West's own narrative. Obama has often acknowledged the West's culpability as well as its responsibility to fund the Third World's mitigation efforts, most recently in a September document jointly signed with President Xi. Obama and other Western leaders are as a result in no position to make demands of the 100-plus developing countries in attendance at the Paris meetings. Not that Obama or others would want to dispute that narrative.
It is sometimes said that, unlike the tensions elsewhere between the two countries, the U.S. and China share goals over climate change. In fact, they mostly share a desire for pretence. At the Paris summit, Xi will pretend he's serious about cutting back CO2 emissions and Obama will pretend that Xi's pretence will help save the planet.
This article first appeared in the Financial Post on Dec. 2, 2015.
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