As part of my seminar work at university recently, we were tasked with acting out a mock debate between China and the United States, as though we were their respective leaders attempting to form an international agreement on climate change and emissions, all COP-like. Three of us were labelled China (me) and the other three the US, and for two weeks we prepared our sides of the argument with the ideas of fairness, equality and discussing topics which are rarely touched upon in the real world.
Now, our goal was to duke it out for 20 minutes or so, each bringing out our biggest guns on the topics of economy, climate policy, energy and poverty, with the ultimate goal of first debating who bore the better position on the global stage, before forming a bilateral framework to bring the rest of the world on board. Easy task eh! But fun nonetheless.
Our lecturer, an environmental barrister who has seen his fair share of global conventions and knows how they work and (mostly) don’t work, and was keen that we focus on one or two key attributes of a fair debate on this topic. Firstly, historical emissions, the idea that a figure can be derived to demonstrate how much greenhouse gas emissions had been accumulated over time by each industrialising country, generally from 1850 until the present. Secondly, the intent to damage, or mens rea, and associated legal issues such as liability were to be included, as these are generally ignored or swept under the rug in the conventions we’ve come to know and hate.
And who do you think holds the crown of the highest historical emissions between the US and China? Why the US of course, by a margin of about 220,000Gt of CO2, maxing out at ~340,000Gt, almost 30% of the entire worldwide past emissions accounted for. China on the other hand is responsible for around 9% of the share, and much of that has been in the last 30-40 years of rampant coal consumption and becoming the ‘manufacturer of the world’, a moniker the US has had much use out of. When you consider what we know of climate science and carbon dioxide today, that fantastically large proportion of emissions resulting from the States puts pretty much everything else into perspective, not least China’s emissions.
China has tried to use this against the US before, claiming that they should pay up for all the dirty CO2 and the years of unabated, joyful economic growth it brought with it; if China is to be expected to slow growth to mitigate climate change, then the US should compensate all those who have and will be affected by that 30% historical share, i.e. the entire planet. When they brought this demand to the table, the US used their secret weapon to shoot it down instantaneously, quickly brushing it out of sight before anything serious came of it. By claiming ignorance effectively, the US leaders merely stated that they could not have possibly known fossil fuel burning was damaging the environment as we now know, and to ask them to pay compensation for anything earlier than, say, the 1980s would be ludicrous. This is despite the fact that we as a society knew these emissions were damaging at least decades earlier, and certainly by the early 1970s, when the wider scientific community began studying the effects of carbon dioxide and other pollutants.
Throughout our research as the Chinese delegation, it became clearer and clearer that America should have to be fined in some way to account for this gross negligence and lack of responsibility for civil society, and yet when we proposed this to the other team, they had the ‘liability’ argument ready and waiting, and we could do nothing about it. It’s infuriating to say the least that this argument has gained no purchase whatsoever, and has been allowed to be simply disregarded on some very flimsy legal terms. Surely you cannot deny the science of carbon dioxide warming the atmosphere? Not even you America. But by stating they didn’t know what was happening back then makes no difference to the physical facts that it WAS harming the environment, and now someone must pay. I know they’re in debt, trillions of it, but their economy is still one of the strongest known, and they could do some serious good to their reputation if they agreed to these demands.
It was also seen in my research, that China has some absolutely kick-ass green policies and agendas, some far better than anything Europe or America has implemented. Take their auto-emission standards to start. The major cities have accepted some of the harshest regulations of any nation, despite the fact there are just 2 cars to every 100 people in China; compare this to America, where standards are generally laxer, but every single person statistically owns a car, all 340 million of them.
Coal plant efficiency is on the rise in China and has surpassed the US, but this isn’t stopping the Chinese government brutally but efficiently shutting down carbon-intensive factories and promoting the building of newer, cleaner plants. Now I know the idea of ‘clean coal’ is all wrong, and the huge binge China is having on the stuff desperately needs an intervention, but this clearly shows they are making steps towards cleaning up their act significantly, both through emission standards and efficiency improvements. If China is to continue on the fossil fuels however, it is imperative they switch to natural gas as fast as possible, to curb emissions and reduce foreign imports of coal, much of which originates from the US anyway.
Carrying on with the green agenda theme, China currently sits in number one position worldwide for solar and wind developments by quite some way, and continues to invest in nuclear energy whilst we shy away from it. Considering how important nuclear can be as an intermediary energy source between fossil fuels and renewables, it would seem China is sticking up the middle finger, as is the rest of Asia (bar Japan for obvious reasons) to the established fear of fission and driving towards its goal of 15% renewables by 2020, a target equal to that of the UK’s.
Meanwhile the US is attempting to promote green growth by ignoring it in the presidential debates, letting the wind PTC steadily expire and stifling overseas manufacturing with petty trade wars and trade regulations. Oh, and despite the potential for hydro, wind, solar and others in the US, shale gas seems to be the sole focus of domestic energy policy at the moment, combined with offshore exploration in the Arctic. While this isn’t half as bad as China and its coal obsession, as a developed nation condemning many for their carbon emissions, it doesn’t really look good does it.
There is also the poverty issue. China is racked with huge levels of poor people with lack of access to heating, electricity, housing or a good income, with some estimates reaching as high as 30% of the population, some 300 million individuals. This issue will always be at the very top of the modern Chinese priority list, and could easily be getting in the way of promoting carbon-conscious behaviour, and yet, it doesn’t. While it’s undeniable they Chinese do not have the greatest human rights record, it improves each month, and with it a flood of new connections to the grid and an increased need for energy. As more clean energy comes online, more people can have access to higher qualities of life, whilst impacting the environment much less than most of the the US population did, until about 40 years ago.
It is the combination of all these factors that drives me to the conclusion that China holds pretty much all of the cards when it comes to negotiation on the global climate stage, or at least it should. It’s managed to achieve in 20 years what it took the US its whole lifetime, and has in many ways surpassed them, in aspects ranging from green policy, renewable investment, market incentives and a real and palpable sense that the Chinese leaders want to tackle this issue head on.
It amazed me how quickly our mock debate descended into finger pointing and angry posturing, with each side trying to outdo the other on the ‘I’m doing this better than you front’, and we were all guilty of it; I’m probably guilty of it in this post. What wasn’t being focused on was what needed to be done. Instead, we went round in circles repeatedly until 3 hours had passed and we were as our lecturer put it, ‘at the 23rd hour’ and had to cobble together a relatively feeble solution. The US doesn’t want to hear about the past, whilst China will not have its rightful growth stifled by a nation who has shrouded its history of emissions.
What I came away most sure of however, was the simple realisation that it is no bloody wonder nothing ever gets achieved at these mass gatherings of vested interests. We could have argued for hours and hours, deliberating the smallest and biggest of points without reaching a conclusion, and even though we finally made some agreement, it was through boredom and lack of energy over real progress. Unfortunately, the real world doesn’t offer a similar excuse.