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Climate Realpolitik: “China’s Interests Must Come First”

Until recently, Yu Qingtai was Beijing’s top climate negotiator. At a speech earlier this month, Yu argued that the developing world must continue to resist unfair demands from rich countries. Here, Chinadialogue publishes a summary of his remarks.

On August 6, Yu Qingtai – until recently China’s special representative for climate change negotiations – made a speech at Peking University’s School of International Studies, in which he discussed the history and future prospects of climate-change negotiations. According to Yu, China played a decisive role at December’s global-warming summit in Copenhagen. He also said that, as all are born equal, China cannot commit to doing more than its historical responsibilities require and, during negotiations, it must put its own national interests first. This is a summary of his speech.

At the United Nations climate-change conference in Bali in 2007, a series of resolutions – collectively known as the Bali Roadmap – launched a two year negotiation process. The crux of the negotiations throughout has been whether or not to maintain the principle of nations having “common but differentiated responsibilities”.

During negotiations, developed nations have done all they can to water down, reinterpret or refute this principle. Those developed nations are the cause of climate change as they have been releasing greenhouse gases for a long time, and the law dictates that they have a duty to cut emissions first and to provide the funds and technology for developing nations’ own emission cuts. While developed countries have made some efforts in this regard, they have done nowhere near as much as they claim.

The global financial crisis sent the developed world into recession. The cost of energy-saving and emissions-reduction measures has increased; the business and economic sectors have become increasingly opposed to the process; and attempts have been made to offload the problem onto developing nations – requiring them to make commitments that far exceeded both their historical responsibilities and their actual capabilities. This would sacrifice the interests of developing countries in order to maintain and further advance the developed world’s lead. Developing nations meanwhile naturally resist what they see as selfish and unreasonable demands.

Prior to Copenhagen, some rich nations came to believe compromise from major developing nations would bring other countries into line – and so they turned their attention to China. They hoped to achieve a breakthrough with the biggest greenhouse-gas emitter among developing nations, and to put pressure on China and India to do more.

The Copenhagen talks, in essence, were a continuation of the 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.

I believe that the Chinese government remained positive and calm in the face of enormous pressure. First, by announcing programmes and targets for the coming decade prior to the talks, the government continued to show the world that China is a responsible nation. Those plans were unconditional, as we do not believe that the future of mankind should be used as a bargaining chip – a position that contrasts sharply with the stance of developed nations.

Second, the Chinese government made no concessions on the country’s right to develop. The European Union said that China’s emissions targets were actually set at levels that would be reached anyway and were equivalent to doing nothing. They did not consider that their proposed 30% cuts have a long list of conditions attached, yet when we aim to cut carbon-intensity by 40% they say we are doing nothing. Premier Wen Jiabao made it clear that China’s targets had been carefully determined and were not open to negotiation, firmly rebuffing developed-nation demands.

Third, the Copenhagen talks did not collapse. China made an active, important and decisive input. Wen Jiabao engaged in three days of constant diplomacy, telling all sides that the Copenhagen talks had reached a crucial stage – that it was necessary to seek common ground but accept differences, to bridge divides and to form a consensus on which to found future cooperation. Towards the end of the conference, as Wen was about to leave for the airport, he decided to stay for a final attempt at an agreement. He urgently contacted the heads of state of Brazil, India and South Africa, some of whom had to turn back from the airport. Five nations [including the United States] gathered…and got down to discussing the core problems.

The talks focused on two issues. One was long term goals. As disagreement over atmospheric carbon-dioxide concentrations and 2050 emissions targets was too great, these were not covered in the agreement, which specified only a goal of limiting any temperature increase to two degrees Celsius [above pre-industrial levels].

Second was the issue of “measurable, reportable and verifiable” cuts. Developed nations wanted to expand verification to every aspect of developing nations’ economies, including development plans and carbon pathways. What right do they have, I ask? These are plans that we will implement based on our own capabilities – what qualifies them to verify them? Who has given them this right? In the end a compromise – “international consultations and analysis” – was reached. China will report the measures it takes to the international community, and the international community is welcome to discuss them.

Copenhagen triggered some fierce reactions in Europe – one of the reasons being that, despite their leading role in the response to climate change and promotion of the Copenhagen meeting, the European leaders were marginalised on the crucial issues. They were unhappy that, at the critical moment, they had not played their rightful role.

I personally feel that, after Copenhagen, all parties adopted a more peaceful, pragmatic and rational attitude. No longer was there manipulation of the kind seen in the lead up to Copenhagen, when expectations were raised and a single international conference was presented as something that would determine the fate of humanity.

If expectations are lowered, there is a greater possibility of achieving what is expected. If we get a result, great, but if we haven’t finished negotiating, then there is still the South Africa summit next year. In this situation, strategies may change. For example, dialogue and communication may replace the constant pressure on major developing nations to compromise and back down. But there are some things that will not change:

1. The search for cooperation. Although disagreements and conflicts of interests will remain with us in the long term, the global nature of the climate-change issue requires global cooperation. All parties need to seek a basic level of consensus as the foundation for that cooperation. This will not be abandoned.

2. The main disagreements are still over “common but differentiated responsibilities”, and this is particularly apparent when cooperation is actually happening. Developed nations will continue to attempt to pass on their responsibilities, and developing nations will continue to resist.

3. Developing nations will continue to defend their development rights and opportunities. They are not willing to combat climate change if the price is continued poverty

Overall, the post-Copenhagen era will be one where consensus and disagreement, cooperation and conflict, coexist. This will remain the case in the long term.

During my three years working on climate change, I have reached some personal conclusions. Concern about climate change and China’s role must be seen against the background of China’s economic and social development. China’s national circumstances cannot be ignored. China is bound to be dependent on coal for energy – we cannot afford oil as an alternative when it costs more than US$100 dollars (680 yuan) a barrel. We have factors limiting our development, and the price and opportunity costs of energy saving and emissions reduction must be taken into account and stable development continued. Many problems can only be solved through development.

We cannot blindly accept that protecting the climate is humanity’s common interest – national interests should come first. Individual enthusiasm and willingness to make sacrifice for the sake of the climate is worthy of respect and praise. I myself usually walk or take the bus to work. The individual can choose not to drive, but China cannot choose not to have an automobile industry. The individual can save power, but there are 600 million people in India without electricity – the country has to develop and meet that need. And if that increases emissions, I say, “So what?” The people have a right to a better life.

I once pointed out to an academic from a developed nation that the emissions resulting from their country’s two-car households had been accumulating in the atmosphere for decades. Many Chinese households have only just purchased their first car and they tell us we should ride bikes? It doesn’t make sense. We want to develop the economy until everyone has the option of buying a vehicle, but at the same time use taxation and subsidies to encourage the purchase of low-emission vehicles and the use of public transport.

When it comes to greenhouse-gas emissions, we cannot only look at the current situation and ignore history, nor look at overall emissions and ignore per capita figures. China’s accumulated emissions account for only 7% of the global total. Emissions are caused by consumption of energy, and this is the foundation of social development. As a Chinese person, I cannot accept someone from a developed nation having more right than me to consume energy. We are all created equal – this is no empty slogan. The Americans have no right to tell the Chinese that they can only consume 20% as much energy. We do not want to pollute as they did, but we have the right to pursue a better life.

The public relations efforts of developed nations on climate change are always more effective than ours, but it is more important to look at their actual actions. Overall, when you look at the facts, there is a huge difference between what is said and what is done.

Some EU nations have done well on emissions reductions, but the United States, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Spain and Italy have not just failed to make cuts – they have significantly increased their emissions. And they do not seem to feel they have done anything wrong.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has been in place for almost two decades, and it has achieved next to nothing. Traditional development aid has been repackaged as aid for climate change. Transfers of technology have not been effectively carried out, with some developed nations even hoping to use the technology they control to turn a profit.

Some ask why China cannot do more public relations work. I think there is a cultural difference here, a characteristic of the nation: we would rather get actual work done than make boastful statements.

Yu Qingtai was appointed China’s special representative for climate change negotiations in 2007, when he was serving as ambassador to Tanzania. He attended the Bali, Poznan and Copenhagen conferences, as well as many other climate-change negotiations. He was recently appointed ambassador to the Czech Republic.

China Dialogue, 27 August 2010