Is China Still A Developing Nation?
December 5, 2009 - 2:18pm ET
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This past week, the UN suspended funding for several Chinese wind farms, ruling the China had been gaming the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) subsidies paid by developed countries to developing countries for clean technology projects they would not have otherwise not have built.
The last point is key, what climate negotiators call "additionality." An agreement or sustainability mechanism is considered to be working if it reduces emissions from a business-as-usual scenario. This idea is going to come up a lot in the climate talks, almost as much as who gets considered a developing or developed nation. The definition determines who gets money and who gives it in this quest to make aid dollars have the most impact possible.
Needless to say, the CDM was not designed as an industrial dumping subsidy for flourishing, well-established industries, such as Chinese turbine manufacturers.
China is truly an economic powerhouse and their government went out of their way during the Olympics to highlight how modern and advanced a society they are. No one could dispute that, nor that they're stiff competition for us in the full range of heavy industry. Though it's hard to say that entirely disqualifies them as a developing nation. Much like India, they're almost two countries: one urban and high-tech, the other almost indistinguishable from a Medieval peasant economy.
According to World Bank estimates released last year, as of 2005, China still had 200 million people living in poverty. That's around six times the population of Canada, for comparison. Really, plenty enough people to be a whole country unto themselves, and it's this face that China presents to the world when it comes to climate negotiations. I'm not going to say that it's wrong for them to do that, either.
Human beings are the most significant arbiters of value for other humans and we should always value each other over dead matter. However, the 200 million in poverty in China live in a country that gets about half of the CDM money, though they make up just less than a tenth of the world population living in poverty.
If we're to really get all countries reducing emissions, what money is made available should at least be shared around more equitably.
I think it's a positive step that Obama has promised to help India and China with research and environmental enforcement., the moreso because it seems to have worked to get them moving in the right direction. They're major world economies with significant global impact and similar situations, and it seems fair for them to say that they didn't bring the world to its current state of crises, that they're late to a game the US, Europe and Japan have been playing for quite a while.
Though as with any other country, Chinese efforts to cut emissions that are meaningful must meet the test of additionality.
Right now, the world is increasing emissions at an increasing rate. Previous climate talks have been centered around getting all of us to increase emissions at a decreasing rate, which is to say, to still be increasing emissions, but more slowly. The scientific imperative is that emissions decrease significantly from previous levels if we want to stave off catastrophe, and that they become negative (that we start pulling more carbon out of the atmosphere than we put in) if we're to keep a stable climate like the one we've had for most of recorded history.
It isn't an accident that there was an explosion of human population and civilization during a period, brief in geologic time, notable mostly for its stability and mildness. Mild climate was a key factor in making civilization as we know it possible.
China has certainly started looking at clean technology as a business opportunity, as well. They have set binding internal targets, even if they've opposed external targets. However, there are serious questions about whether their current emission proposals represent a cut from business as usual. As a leading manufacturing economy, their impact either way, regardless of their relative newcomer status, will affect us all and bears particular attention.
And here we come back to where the US needs to step carefully. China needs to be brought into an agreement, yes, but so do we.
In addition to additionality, the political will required to maintain climate agreements will only stay with us if it accompanies increasing, widespread prosperity. China, India, and all the rest of the developing nations, must rise. Though if workers in developed nations are allowed to fall, that will inevitably choke off support for continuing with technology transfer and development assistance.
Everybody must win or everybody will fail. I don't mean to come over all self-help on you, but it's only the veriest truth.
If jobs and prosperity fall in the US, the US will continue being an enormous obstacle to world emission cuts, as we have been, lo, these many years.
But is China a developing nation or a rival on equal footing? What can both parties give that will best promote cuts from business-as-usual emissions? What mechanism will bring the greatest prosperity to average people in both countries, lifting their population out of poverty and keeping ours from sliding down into it? How we answer these questions will have a huge effect on whether either country comes to the table in good faith, and on that, much of the fate of the world hangs.
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Views expressed on this page are those of the authors and not necessarily those of Campaign for America's Future or Institute for America's Future