A China-US lock-up of the Paris climate conference

China and India won’t give up burning coal anytime soon – how should the Paris climate conference respond?

For anyone who thinks the European Union has come to embody the gap between policies and politics, looking at the COP21 should be a relief: it is far worse.

Perhaps the prevailing symbol of this should be China, whose capital is buried today in a shroud of air pollution with PMI 2.5 particles peaking at 624 micrograms per cubic metre, some 25 times higher than the level of concern. Outdone, New Delhi could only reach to 424 µg/m3 on the same day.

These figures follow two news items that have not received enough attention amongst a Western audience. A few weeks ago, China discreetly revised the figure for its coal production by a whopping 600 million tons over every year of the past decade. This increase alone is more than twice the UK’s peak coal production in 1913, at the apex of what we thought was the Coal Age. We then learned from the head of a major Chinese environmental NGO – a government-controlled one at that – that China’s sulphur dioxide emissions for 2014 had been underestimated by more than 50 percent. The country emitted more than 30 million tons of sulphur dioxide, and not 19 million tons as previously reported.

This puts in a new light the commitment made in November 2014 by China’s government, side by side with the US government, to have peak CO2 “around 2030”.  At the time, this political (but not legally binding or even formal) commitment was hailed by the US administration as a milestone of Sino-American cooperation.  Not only was the baseline in 2015 off by nearly 20 percent, but also it is clear that the recording is inaccurate – and most likely, amateurish or a political projection from local guesswork.

China will agree, as it did with the EU, to work “towards” a legally binding commitment. It just will not say which.

On this basis, China went forward to new successes. In June 2015, it signed a EU-China Joint Statement on Climate Change, whose crown jewel was the agreement to reach “a legally-binding agreement” at the COP21 in Paris later that year.  The only hitch, of course, was that the statement gave no clue as to what that agreement might look like, but nonetheless the EU’s diplomacy seemed to have one-upped the Obama administration.  

Rewind to the heady months preceding the Copenhagen Climate Conference in December 2009.  What characterised Europe (and at the time, Japan’s) climate diplomacy was the will to produce legally binding commitments, with actual emission ceilings. There were always doubts about compliance, not solely over China, but even over European states who have often failed to live up to their own commitments in terms of reduction of emissions. Since there is ample proof that targets whether legally enforced or not, are not met without verification – of a sort.

That explains why, three weeks before the Copenhagen meeting, president Obama came out with a new requirement: that commitments be backed by in-country verification of actual emission levels. The last minute announcement wrecked the Copenhagen conference, because China treated this as an intrusive verification, which it generally refuses. The blame was put on China at the time, but Washington probably knew what the reception to this demand would be.

Since Copenhagen, the picture has moved on. Japan under Shinzo Abe has changed position on climate diplomacy and come down on the side of pragmatic, sectoral and largely voluntary commitments rather than overall legally binding agreements.

The US too has changed and made a huge concession: in its declaration with China it has recognised different targets for developed and developing economies – the growing public attention on developing states through a “€100 billion fund” drawn from developed economies is a consequence of this change.  And three weeks before COP21, the Obama administration has stepped in again, with Secretary Kerry as a spokesman. This time, it is not pressing China: on the contrary, it is letting it, and any other large polluter, off the hook by saying it will not move to a legally binding treaty. 

In 2015, the US is locked in strategic competition with China, and the administration has probably concluded that climate politics could be an area of convergence with China

The reversal probably illustrates a wider turnaround in America’s China policy. In 2009, it was still focused on engagement on all fronts, and climate diplomacy could be a minor holdout in that respect. In 2015, the US is locked in strategic competition with China, and the administration has probably concluded that climate politics could be an area of convergence with China, helping to prove that the US is not out to “get China”, and demonstrate that China-US dialogue has met with important results. In fairness, Europeans may have acted similarly in responding to the AIIB issue, and also in pressing for the inclusion of the Chinese Yuan in the IMF’s basket of reserve currencies.  China, it seems, just has a way of getting its way.

But compromise with China has costs elsewhere. India’s climate diplomacy, formerly based on historical redress – the rich polluted, it’s our turn now – can now point to the lightness of the Sino-US declaration as a sign of hypocrisy. New Delhi is now laying claims to its own Coal Age, buying one Chinese coal plant every three weeks for the next five years.

The European Union has been largely left alone, and in his drive to obtain legally binding commitments, President Hollande is a holdout from the European principled negotiating position. But it has met with reality. With some language reservations, China will agree, as it did with the EU to work “towards” a legally binding commitment. It just will not say which.

We shouldn’t give up on hoping that COP21 is able to push forward the cause of alternative energies, or of carbon trading and/or taxation as a way to move ahead. But it is clear that this is not accompanied by a more pragmatic policy on coal. India will not desist, and with the recent revision of statistics, China’s “peak around 2030” now starts from such a high base that it is not much of a commitment.

Encouraging, funding and transferring Supercritical and Ultra-Supercritical thermal plants (whose energy efficiency ratio diminishes the CO2/output ratio), subsidising filters and liquid bed technologies would go a long way to meeting some of the requirements to limit the future rise in temperature, This is not a plea for coals and gas plants – but the sad recognition that we have not found a way to cap them.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Director, Asia and China Programme
Senior Policy Fellow

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