The climate fight: politics vs ethics

China's emissions have grown dramatically over the years, but the efforts of politicians such as American Charles Hagel to use them as an excuse for inaction doesn't help things.

If one thing defines how China’s rapid growth will reshape the physical world, it is climate change. But that was hard to see when I first arrived in the country in 1996.

Global warming was just emerging as a widespread concern and, despite its massive population, China played a small role in global negotiations. It had been only four years since 154 nations – including China and the United States – had signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, a treaty – often called the UNFCCC – that aimed for “the stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”

Most important, China’s emissions were less than half of what they are today and arriving in the country it was impossible to imagine that within a decade it would surpass the United States as the world’s top emitter.

Instead, my first impression was of darkness. As the plane carrying my Peace Corps group banked toward Beijing, I peered out my window at countryside punctuated by a handful of scattered single lights and thought for a moment that I was looking up at a clear night sky.

After we collected our luggage from a creaky baggage carousel, we rode into the city on a highway lined with trees that faded into blackness. We checked into an upscale hotel a few minutes’ walk from Tiananmen Square, but at eight or nine o’clock on a weekday night only a few cars zipped along the roads outside.

The next day I woke early and wandered through traditional lanes where locals hustled to shared public toilets and gathered for group exercises. Some bought fruits and vegetables from salesmen who displayed their goods on bicycle carts. A couple dressed in pajamas languidly hit a shuttlecock back and forth. Later that day an official at the US embassy told our group that China’s electrical capacity was only large enough to simultaneously provide each citizen with a steady stream of 150 watts. In the United States, the average capacity was twenty times greater. “In the United States, everybody could turn on their oven and their hairdryer,” he said. In China, everyone could turn on a light bulb.

That disparity left China a distant top contributor to global warming. In 1998, the Energy Information Administration, the information hub of the US Department of Energy, estimated that China ­wouldn’t surpass the United States as the world’s top contributor until sometime between 2015 and 2020. Other experts were more sanguine. In 2006, Elizabeth Kolbert, the author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe, wrote that China was “expected to overtake the United States as the world’s largest carbon emitter around 2025.”

The sense that China’s trajectory wouldn’t put it atop the international emissions list for several decades left global warming a low priority among journalists in the country: despite its rapid growth, China seemed too rural and poor to change the physical planet. It also appeared to be a technological laggard: most of its factories were old and used outdated technologies, making it one of the world’s least energy efficient nations. (Even a decade later China would need two and a half times as much energy as the United States and nearly nine times as much as ultra­efficient Japan to earn the same number of dollars.)

If the world needed a high­tech Industrial Revolution to swap its fossil fuel­burning power plants, cars, and factories for wind turbines and solar panels, it seemed obvious that the technology would come from the world’s rich, technologically advanced nations.

Since then, two things have radically shifted the picture: China has proved the world’s top energy analysts disastrously conservative and, despite the country’s relative poverty, Western nations have begun to consider it a major competitor that should be forced to make similar commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions, kick-starting an era of contentious politics about so far unanswered questions: When should China and other developing nations, which under the UNFCCC accepted only monitoring, cut back on fossil fuel use? And if the world accepts a fixed budget for carbon emissions, how should it be divided?

The first shift became obvious in 2007. The Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, a research group that advises the Dutch government, released a report helpfully titled “China Now No. 1 in CO2 Emissions; USA in Second Position.”

Basing its computations on various sources – including that China produced almost half of the world’s cement, which creates carbon dioxide in the production process – the group showed that Chinese emissions increased almost 9 per cent in 2006 to overtake the United States, where emissions had declined slightly.

The second shift started earlier but has grown into the most difficult issue facing climate change negotiations. In July 1997, five months before negotiators meeting in Kyoto, Japan, created the Kyoto Protocol – the treaty that put specific targets on the Framework Convention – the US Senate unanimously passed the Byrd­-Hagel resolution.

Sponsored by Democrat Senator Robert Byrd and Republican Senator Charles Hagel, the resolution declared that the United States would not accept any global warming treaty that did “serious harm” to the American economy or exempted developing countries, which the senators feared would make life harder for American manufacturers. China was at the front of their minds. “We could see that China would eventually overtake the United States in greenhouse gases,” Hagel would later say.

In China, however, the calculus was radically different. Its leaders argued that a fair treaty should account for historical emissions, a method that would give them a much larger share of future emissions. (The United States and Europe are each responsible for almost 30 per cent of total global carbon emissions between 1850 and 2000, while China accounted for only 7 per cent; India and other poorer countries used a fraction of that.) China also argued for per capita accounting, a standard by which their emissions are also small – before the recent US recession roughly one-quarter of the American average.

Taken together, the negotiator argued, China should be able to emit much more than they had. “As for China’s impact on surrounding countries, I’m first to admit the problem,” Pan Yue, a former deputy minister of China’s State Environmental Protection Agency, told the Wall Street Journal in 2004.

“But let’s talk about this in the context of international fairness. Whose development model are we emulating? Who has been shifting all of its pollution­heavy factories to China? And who bears an even greater international responsibility than China – but has yet to shoulder it – on matters like greenhouse gas emissions?”

The situation was further complicated in the US because people began to talk about China’s emissions not in terms of global warming but in the terms laid out by the Byrd-­Hagel resolution: the American quality of life and American jobs.

As it happened, Hagel attended the 1997 meeting that created the Kyoto Protocol, and on his way home he stopped in Sichuan Province. He asked to meet a few Peace Corps volunteers, and four of us were shuffled into Chengdu, the provincial capital, for breakfast at a five-­star hotel, a welcome escape from our unheated apartments an hour to the north.

As we ate we talked about teaching in China, and Hagel talked about the Kyoto meeting. I had been busy studying Chinese when the Byrd-­Hagel resolution passed and didn’t have good questions, but my memory is that he supported global action. A few weeks later, however, I was back in Pengzhou, reading a Newsweek magazine on my fifth ­floor balcony, brushing coal ash off each page as I turned it, and I came across an article that described the debate.

One fact particularly caught my eye: US opponents of the Kyoto Protocol had spent millions of dollars on negative advertising, arguing that cutting fossil fuel use “would send the economy into the toilet, push jobs overseas, force drivers out of their Range Rovers and basically condemn Americans to drinking warm beer in a cold ­house.” Hagel was a chief spokesman: “We will kill this bill,” he declared.

The story provided a coming ­of­ age moment. Besides the fact that I had happily given up driving for two years and often enjoyed drinking warm beer in my cold apartment, I realised that Hagel had misrepresented himself to our small China-knowledgeable, climate­-concerned group.

The lesson was that at least some politicians would do whatever was to their political benefit. It seemed an ominous sign for the future.

This is an extract from 'The Devouring Dragon: how China’s rise threatens our natural world', which is to be released in August.