China, US can use differences to support innovative solutions
Updated: 2009-05-04 07:46
The difference between emissions in China and the US is much greater than most people realize and requires very different strategies.
Scientific principles and the ability to differentiate between bad and good emissions could help deliver a climate deal that is ambitious enough to avoid dangerous climate change and support innovation, but is equitable, argues Dennis Pamlin a global policy advisor for World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
China and the US are the two largest emitters and users of coal power in the world today and are seen by many as the most important countries for a climate agreement, but from a climate perspective it is important to remember that there are probably more differences than similarities between the two countries.
Per capita emissions
China's population is for example four times larger so per capita emissions are just a quarter of the emissions in the US. This makes China's emissions effectively lesser, when compared to the US.
Let's start with the commitment to action against climate change in the last decade.
For those of us who were in Kyoto in 1997 for the climate negotiations, it was interesting to see that the US delegation did not play a very constructive role there and contributed to many of the loopholes that the world still struggles with. When George W. Bush became president in 2001, one of his first acts after taking office was to declare that he would not seek Senate ratification of the Kyoto Protocol. In contrast, China formally signed the Kyoto protocol in 2002 and has since implemented many policies; some of these are among the most ambitious on the planet, to increase energy efficiency and use of renewable energy.
Today, as it stands, the US has lost a decade and developed a history of undermining global negotiations, but with the speed at which Obama is working could be made up for quite fast. America can begin by demonstrating its commitment to an energy plan based on sound science, a plan that puts the US on the path toward more vigorous cuts in pollution over the next decade, and a plan that ramps up investment in technologies needed to get there.
If we look even further back in time, it is clear that the US, together with most Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, over the last century have created wealth by filling the atmosphere with greenhouse gas.
The current emissions are just one part of the puzzle. Simplistic ideas about a global cap and trade system or a global carbon tax are, at best, naive and, at worst an attempt to move away from a system based on equity, capacity to act and historic responsibility.
The historic emissions and capacity to reduce emissions were two main reasons why the Kyoto protocol only included absolute reduction targets for the rich countries.
As we look ahead a question that needs to be discussed more is why different countries still increase their emissions. This can be seen from an "equity perspective".
As President Hu Jintao rightfully pointed out at a G8 meeting last year, "a significant share of China's total emissions fall in the category of subsistence emissions necessary to meet people's basic needs". As China continues to grow, it is important to differentiate these kinds of emissions from other emissions, such as those related to inefficient industrial production and consumption among a growing rich urban population.
The increase over the last decade in the US and the projected increase for the coming years are very different. Emissions in the US are mostly related to investments in inefficient transmission systems, very large building space with low efficiency and consumption of luxury goods and fast food, large cars.
It would be good if the US and China could develop a tool that indicated how much of the emissions from different countries are related to being necessary for the basic needs of their people and how much is for other reasons. It would also help to identify areas where different low carbon solutions are needed.
Why the emissions take place can also be seen from a "global economy" perspective. A large proportion of the emission that are emitted in China are embedded in goods that are exported. So even if the emissions take place in China it is people in OECD that benefit from these emissions. Estimations show that up to a third of China's emissions are embedded in export, making China's real emissions much lower than the official numbers. For the US the situation is the reverse and the emissions in the US would be about 15 percent higher if the carbon embedded in import and export was included.
Countries need to begin to measure the systemic consequences of their export of different goods and services. Countries that export SUV's and inefficient appliances are contributing to increased greenhouse gas emissions in other countries, while export of renewable energy, low carbon IT, smart buildings help reduce emissions.
Looking forward towards Copenhagen it is clear that a global climate deal should build on the principles of fairness and equity, drawing on the criteria of historic responsibility and capacity to act. Each country should follow a low carbon development path within the global carbon budget. In this context, it is clear that after decades of inaction, the new US administration must join a strong new international agreement in Copenhagen.
This includes adopting an economy-wide quantified emission reduction commitment that is comparable, in nature, intensity and compliance requirements to the commitments taken by other industrialized countries. In order to address the concerns for effectiveness and equity in the new agreement, the US should also commit to steeper reductions after 2020, with distinct milestones that lead towards a 2050 target.
Low carbon economy
As we now move closer to Copenhagen, China and the US should also begin to identify companies and technological areas that can become winners in a low carbon economy, including whole sectors such as IT and Biotech as well as efficiency in the building sector, smart grid and solar energy.
By encouraging and scaling up international collaboration these and other solution-oriented companies could deliver transformative solutions that help the rich world reduce their excess consumption and emissions at the same time as they support sustainable poverty reduction.
This will however also require collaboration around using and, in some cases, creating policies so that these solutions are taken up faster in both US and China and elsewhere.
The last decade of climate negotiations focused on the problems with reduced emissions and how companies with major emissions can reduce their own emissions. The next decade should focus on opportunities and how companies with low emissions can provide innovative low carbon solutions for high emission sectors to give us what we need.
If China and the US take the first steps the world will follow.
Dennis Pamlin is Global Policy Advisor, WWF and Stefan Henningsson is Global Innovation expert, WWF. The views expressed in the article are their own