By Zhao Xingshu
Climate change is sure to be one of the dominant issues when the leaders of the eight largest industrialized powers meet in Heiligendamm, Germany, this week for their annual summit. The reality of the human link to global warming is accepted worldwide.
In its Fourth Assessment report, the United Nations-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) offered its strongest language to emphasize that earth's climate is warming and humans are largely responsible.
Climate change not only has a major impact on the ecological environment around the globe. It also poses a severe challenge to the production, consumption and lifestyle of human society. How we respond to climate change now will shape our future.
There is world consensus that international cooperation should be enhanced to address climate change. However, the existing global climate regime, namely the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), does not work as efficiently as expected. You can imagine how big the transaction cost is with 189 countries involved.
Moreover, the effectiveness of the Kyoto Protocol has been greatly reduced without the United States, the world's top emitter of greenhouse gases.
Concerned with the poor performance of UNFCCC negotiations, some countries are beginning to establish new bilateral or multilateral frameworks or make full use of existing international platforms to move on.
In this complex context, climate change is finally becoming a core part of the G8 agenda.
In the field of climate change, perhaps more striking, the G8 approach (or G8 Plus Five - G8+5) is compelling US involvement in a way that the UN approach - from UNFCCC to the Kyoto Protocol - failed to do.
The stance of the United States has long been a stumbling block in securing international agreement on measures to tackle climate change. Moreover, the importance of G8 governance for climate control relies on its international impact since other countries cannot escape the power and influence of the G8.
For example, the executive boards of some international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank have been controlled by G8 powers. This reality can be effectively used to mobilize global resources to move the world toward clean energy systems and a stabilized climate.
G8+5 - accounting for 80 percent of the global GDP, 67 percent of the world population, and 72 percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions - has the power to significantly influence the behavior not just of its members but of other nations.
However, the G8+5 Dialogue, sort of a complement to UNFCCC, remains only an international forum, not a binding mechanism. Its stated purpose is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) mainly through strengthening cooperation in clean energy technology. But it has no mandatory target or timetable.
The question is how to ensure its emission reduction target without an enforcement mechanism.
If the G8+5 model takes the "state" as one unit in terms of reducing GHGs in accordance with its total emissions, it will confuse the distinctions of historical responsibility, level of development, and the mitigation capability between developed and developing countries. This is completely contrary to the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities" stated by UNFCCC.
The principle clearly demands that the developed nations take the lead on GHG reduction and assist developing countries with technology transfer and capital.
Realizing that key emerging economies cannot be ignored on GHGs, the G8 model finally shifted to the G8+5 model for controlling climate change. In addition , the G8+5 Summit created a forum for China to work together with other countries on the shared challenges of addressing climate change.
China's engagement in the G8+5 Climate Dialogue, with an emphasis on the guiding role of UNFCCC as well as its principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities", will help China become more energy efficient, including more energy use from renewable sources.
China is the second biggest emitter of greenhouse gases after the United States, whose share of global GHGs accounted for 13 percent in 1990 and 18 percent in 2005. Coal-dependent China's accelerating urbanization and industrialization indicates a massive, rapid increase in demand for fossil fuels. As a result, it will be producing more GHGs over the next 15 years.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) expects China to overtake the United States by 2010 or sooner, which puts China under increasing international pressure to control its GHGs.
However, it is not realistic for China to make drastic large scale cuts in carbon emissions considering its current situation.
First of all, China's push for economic growth to meet the target of a well-off society is the primary factor driving the sustained high rate of energy demand and GHGs.
Second, China has entered a stage of accelerating industrialization and urbanization. Both require substantial amount of energy-intensive products such as metals, construction materials, heavy chemicals for physical infrastructure, buildings and machinery.
In addition, much of the energy embedded in products has been exported for consumption outside China, as the Chinese economy is highly export oriented.
Third, it is impossible for China's coal-based energy structure to undergo any fundamental change in the near future.
Fourth, compared with industrialized countries, China has a weaker technical and financial capacity, which restricts the transition of China to a low-carbon path.
Last but not least are China's priorities. Considering other urgent domestic problems, for example, China's conventional urban air pollution has not yet been effectively controlled, and more than 200 million people are still below the international poverty line of one dollar per capita per day, climate change cannot become China's only priority.
China, as a developing nation, is not bound to limit its emissions under the Kyoto Protocol. Despite this, the Chinese government is aware of the complexities and effects of climate change.
China, like the rest of the world, has been suffering from the effects of rising sea levels, drought, flooding, tropical cyclones, sandstorms and heat waves caused by climate change. It is in China's interest to help mitigate the effects of climate change both domestically and internationally.
Spurred on by this, China, as a stakeholder in the international community, has been actively participating in a variety of bilateral, multilateral and global initiatives on energy efficiency, development of renewable energy, and carbon capture and storage within a framework of sustainable development.
Domestically, although its primary motivation may not be to align itself with mitigating the effects of climate change, China has been adopting new social, economic and energy policies with notable results.
China's most controversial policy worldwide, the one-child policy, makes significant and positive contributions to its GHGs reduction by reducing population growth by 300 million since the 1970s.
Simply put, population is the key driver behind GHG growth. Meanwhile, benefiting from China's forestation and "returning cropland to forest" policies, the forest coverage rate has grown quickly from 13 percent in the 1980s to 18 percent in 2005. This creates a tremendous increase in carbon sinks.
In addition, China's policies to diversify its sources of energy, to promote energy conservation and to increase energy efficiency can also slow the steep rise in its emissions. The 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-10) requires that energy intensity be reduced by 20 percent, which has clear implications for carbon reductions.
In short, climate change is a long-term challenge faced by every part of the world. If some can still benefit from energy problems, no one can escape climate disasters. As a large developing economy, China is willing to join in extensive cooperation to deal with climate change together with other nations under the guidance of the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities" set by UNFCCC.
To be noted here, GHGs and climate change, originating from the energy-related activities during development, should also be tackled by means of development. Guided by the concept of scientific development, China is taking a series of concrete measures to achieve its notable 20 percent energy intensity reduction target in the year ahead. It will go further to fight against the global problem while ensuring ongoing economic growth that is both healthy and rapid.
The author is with the Research Center for Sustainable Development, Institute of American Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
(China Daily June 6, 2007)