China’s public pronouncements on its Copenhagen position are becoming increasingly clumsy and shrill. I suspect that the Obama victory, the speed with which his administration has moved to engage China on climate change issues, the unified position of the US and Annex 1 countries that China needs to do more, and the crumbling of the unified front initially maintained by the “developing” countries, has caught China flat footed.
In an effort to stave off any kind of binding commitments, it has been forced to play a hastily cobbled together defense which has consisted of throwing up an array of increasingly unpersuasive and contradictory arguments in the hope that one or two may stick.
The latest such defense was advanced by Li Gao, China’s chief climate negotiator, who is in Washington to hold talks with the Obama’s administration. In widely reported remarks, he argued that the carbon produced by China as a result of making products for export, should be credited to the importing nation and not carried on China’s books. As we’ve noted before, this argument is not unreasonable, but is patently unworkable and inconsistent with the way in which emissions have been allocated in the past according to international agreement. It would require a complex analysis of world trading patterns in order to be implemented, which (even if agreement were made today to change the emission accounting formula) could not possibly be completed in time for Copenhagen.
Li’s remarks met immediate skepticism, with other negotiators saying it would be a logistical nightmare to find a way to regulate carbon emissions at exports’ destination.
Asking importers to handle emissions “would mean that we would also like them to have jurisdiction and legislative powers in order to control and limit those,” top EU climate negotiator Artur Runge-Metzger said.
“I’m not sure whether my Chinese colleague would agree on that particular point,” he said.
If China were serious about its argument–that importers should bear the cost of emissions generated abroad– it should support an import tax (or impose an export tax) to place the cost of carbon emissions on importers and the ultimate consumers of the product. But, here’s where China’s use of this “defense” becomes suspect. Reportedly,
Li also criticized proposals by the U.S. to place carbon tariffs on goods imported from countries that do not limit the gases blamed for global warming.
“If developed countries set a barrier in the name of climate change for trade, I think it is a disaster,” Li said.
Ah I see, China’s argument has a catch: developed countries should be charged with both their domestic (non-exported) carbon production and the carbon production associated with their imports, but they should be required to enact all reduction goals on the back of their domestic industries. Developing country exporters should be permitted to continue their exports unencumbered with carbon emissions costs. That’s a patent non-starter, of course, and the fact that China is even proposing it highlights the clumsy feel of its current climate change negotiating posture.
There are signs that the US and the EU (as evidenced by the above quotes from Runge-Metzger) are becoming frustrated:
China’s chief climate official, Xie Zhenhua, was also in Washington where he met with US global warming pointman Todd Stern, who praised Beijing’s “broad work” on climate change but sought greater cooperation.
China has many very persuasive arguments as to why it should not be in the same boat with developed nations; perhaps it is making these arguments privately. It’s beginning to lose its poise in the public arena (Li during the same press opportunity took a snide swipe at Japan’s climate negotiator), however, and is not aiding its cause. It should start to float proposals for interim limits (which may only be reductions in “business as usual” emissions as opposed to hard and fast caps), if it wants to be a responsible player in the achievement of a successful agreement or initial framework at Copenhagen. The problem may be that there is no consensus yet within the Chinese leadership as to what these “interim limits” should look like. If that’s the case, it should move swiftly to achieve internal agreement. Time is running out.