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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
(China Daily June 6, 2007)