Look, Hu's Talking

I just returned from a week of talks with Chinese experts and officials in Beijing on global warming.  They are intensely interested in how American climate policy may change under a new president next year.  And they are ready to tell visitors a lot about the direction of climate policy in China. 

The first thing I learned is that on June 28th the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party had held an unusual “group study” – a two-hour seminar for the nation’s top party leaders on climate change science and policy, led by the country’s president and the party’s general secretary, Hu Jintao.  These training sessions, I was told, are reserved for issues China’s top leaders believe are really important for the entire party leadership.  Two prominent Chinese experts, one on climate science and the other on energy policy, gave presentations.   The session was capped by a speech by President Hu.  Although I don’t yet have a verbatim translation of Hu’s speech, here are excerpts from a summary provided by Li Yan in Greenpeace’s China office, which I think is worth quoting at some length:

Hu said that China is making key steps towards building a Well-Off Society, and is at an important development stage of accelerated industrialization and urbanization. The burdens of economic growth and living standards improvements are heavy. The task of addressing climate change is tough. However, how China copes with climate change is related to the country's economic development and people's practical benefits. It's in line with the country's basic interests.  

Hu emphasized the following five key groups of measures to tackle climate change:

1.        to implement GHG emission controlling measures: sticking to the basic state policy of resource-saving and environment protection, as well as exploration of the new way of industrialization with Chinese Characteristics, speeding up the transition of way of economic development by improving energy saving and efficiency, developing circular economy and low carbon economy; and increasing forest coverage.

2.        to enhance adaptation capacity: improving farmland capital construction; rational exploitation and optimized distribution of water resource, construction of ecological conservation priority projects, integrated climate impacts assessment.

3.        to make use of science and technology improvement and innovation: accelerating R&D and demonstration of key technologies in both climate mitigation and adaptation, strengthening basic science research, enhancing international R&D.

4.        to set up institutional mechanisms to address climate change: improving laws and regulations; pushing forward energy management mechanism and pricing reform, monitoring-early warning emergency mechanism and decision making process with multiple ministries’ involvement, action mechanism to ensure wider participation of the Chinese society, etc. Amongst all, capacity building on integrated monitoring and early warning against extreme weather disasters, on withstanding disasters and on disaster reduction is particularly important.

5.        to enhance awareness and capacity of the society to participate in tackling climate change, and build positive environment of public participation.  

And here’s perhaps the key part, again summarized by Li Yan of Greenpeace: 

At the end of the speech, Hu urged local governments to recognize that addressing climate change is a key component of achieving sustainable development. They should bring climate consideration into economic and societal development plans, take on appropriate measures, and build up coordinating and implementing capacity. The task to achieve the national binding energy saving and pollutant emission reduction targets of “the eleventh five year plan (2006-2010)” is hard, and time is limited. Party organizations and governments at all levels must give priority to these targets. They need to improve energy saving and emission reduction accounting, monitoring and assessment system, also prioritize key sectors and fields and widely engage the public. 

What does this mean?  Chinese experts told me it means:  “Pay attention, Party officials, you are going to get graded on this.”  Your advancement is going to depend in part on whether you deliver on the energy efficiency and pollution reduction targets in the five-year plan. 

The five-year plan, it will be recalled, set a target of improving energy intensity – the amount of energy per unit of economic output – 20% by 2010.  The Chinese experts and officials I talked with said we should look for stronger energy efficiency improvement targets to be set for succeeding years.

One expert told me there are two things driving Chinese climate policy now.  The first driver is domestic concern for energy security and reducing pollution.  Chinese concern about global warming impacts has risen significantly due to a series of extreme weather events this year, from last winter’s intense snow storms that shut down internal transport, to this summer’s unusually heavy rains – which are hammering the already devastated earthquake region.

The second driver is concern for China’s place in the world.  China wants to be seen as a “responsible big nation,” more than one expert told me.  And they are acutely aware that they are now #1 in annual CO2 emissions and that they are under international pressure to take action to reduce their emissions. 

These domestic and international drivers have led to a change in the tone and substance of China’s climate policy.  Just a few years ago, China’s leaders brushed off any call for their country to reduce emissions, saying that their only priority was development and poverty eradication.  But at the Bali climate conference last December, China and other big developing countries showed unprecedented willingness to begin negotiations on emission-reducing commitments and actions to be taken by both developed and developing countries. 

Today, China’s President Hu and leaders of other large developing countries – Brazil, India, Mexico, and South Africa and others – are in Japan for a “major economies” summit on climate change with leaders of the biggest developed nations, on the heels of the G8 summit.   

The G8's own climate statement was underwhelming, to say the least -- see the postings here and here by my colleague, Jake Schmidt.  The G8 say they want China and the other big developing countries to join in emission reduction efforts.

In their own statement the five developing country leaders say they are ready to do so.  If developed countries take the lead in reducing their own emissions in the near-term (between now and 2020), the big developing country leaders say they also will act.    


That’s a positive answer to the G8 leaders’ demand for action by all major emitters.   

Sounds like the basis of a deal.