Liang Jing (梁京): Global Climate Change, Humanity’s Predicament and China’s Opportunity

Thanks to David Kelly, Professor of China Studies, China Research Centre, University of Technology Sydney, for translating the following opinion piece by political commentator Liang Jing:

Global climate change, humanity’s predicament and China’s opportunity*

The global climate conference now under way in Copenhagen may well be a major historical event impacting mankind’s destiny in the 21st century. Humanity has never previously taken collective action on such a scale to address a common crisis, and China, moreover, is standing at the centre of the world stage playing a pivotal role as a great power for the first time. No wonder the 21st Century World Economic Herald of 14 December headlined the conference as China’s “‘coming of age’ as a great power.” [1]

As the reporter said, in this “‘coming of age’ as a great power,” China, fully aware of its importance, is no longer avoiding the limelight, and not only is it no longer avoiding direct ‘confrontation’ with the US and other western countries, but is actively expressing its own voice.” China chooses such a stance not only due to its deep pockets and out of domestic political considerations, but also because it sees the moral and domestic political dilemmas the other countries face.

American and Western leaders argue that if effective measures to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions are not taken immediately, it will be difficult for humanity to avoid unprecedented climatic disasters. Unable to convince their own people to make sacrifices and contributions to avoid this disaster that will satisfy other countries, they hope, however, to persuade developing countries to make more concessions. The democratic political system itself is, ironically, a major factor making it difficult for their political leaders to do more, whereas China’s authoritarian rulers currently enjoy huge advantages denied to the democracies. The political space China’s leaders have in terms both of emission reduction targets and funding contributions are the envy of Western leaders.

In a report of 14 December, the Economic Observer published interviews with EU chief climate negotiator Artur Runge-Metzger and Chinese negotiator Lu Du, intriguingly titled “Bicker, bicker, bicker, what’s getting in between us?” To Chinese, it subtly conveyed China‘s derision of the West as miserly and indeed “mean.” In the EU’s view, raising the level of financial assistance from current US $5 to 10 billion to the future level of $500 million to 1 billion is already a huge effort, but this level is equivalent only to between 1/3 and 1/2 of China’s average purchase of US bonds in peak months. The real problem is that, compared to the huge losses the EU argues that climate change may bring, the level of its assistance is really too low.

But has China fulfilled its own due responsibilities? Why is the West adopting an attitude of qualified welcome to China’s promises? This is because China has not made a clear commitment on the total amount of emissions, leaving a considerable number of variables in play. First of all, China promised to reduce its carbon emissions per unit GDP by 40% to 45%. Hence its total reduction of carbon emissions will depend on its future economic growth. According to Runge-Metzger, if it continues its rapid growth, the goal of a drop of two degrees in global temperatures cannot be guaranteed. He did not dare express another larger uncertainty, namely whether future Chinese leaders can deliver on the commitment of the current leadership. In general, reducing carbon emissions per unit GDP is harder the later it is done, while a common problem of China’s post June 4th political leaders is to give themselves the glory of good things while passing on problems to their successors and future generations.

The week’s controversies at the Copenhagen conference show that, faced with a serious risk of global climate change, humanity seems to lack the political wisdom to take effective collective action. The developed and developing countries are likely to differ by only a few billions of dollars in their investment burdens, while greatly increasing the risk encountering losses tens of millions thousands times greater in a few decades. In terms of humanity’s overall interests, this is clearly not rational, but in terms of the individual interests of each country and each politician, it is rational and difficult to choose differently.

In my view, humanity’s predicament offers China a rare historical opportunity, namely of committing to provide financial support to address global climate change. This would not only enhance its international status, but would also be in return for some kind of international arrangement to preserve China’s foreign exchange reserves. These huge reserves have become a heavy burden and face considerable risk from devaluation of the dollar. If, as a condition for helping developing countries cope with climate change, China gained international support guaranteeing the value of some of its foreign exchange reserves, there should be considerable room for negotiation.

On 10 December, it was reported, George Soros put forward a proposal for the developed countries to provide 100 billion US dollars in the form of special drawing rights, as a “special green fund” for developing countries to develop low-carbon energy and deal with climate change and natural disasters. [2]

In financial terms, China is fully capable of being the largest investor in this “special green fund”, and thereby gain the right to negotiate to preserve its value. Were Mao alive, I don’t think he would hesitate to seize this opportunity “to make a greater contributions to humanity,” but will Hu Jintao?

* Liang Jing, “Yingdui quanqiu qihou bianhua de renlei kunjing yu Zhongguo jiyu” [Response to global climate change, the human predicament and China’s opportunity], 13 December 2009 [梁京: “应对全球气候变化的人类困境与中国机遇”, 2009年12月 13日.].
[1] Yuan Xue, “‘Daguo chengren li’: Zhongguo jiaofeng Gebenhagen” [Coming of age as a great power: China confronts Copenhagen], , 12 December 2009 [袁雪:“大国‘成人礼’:中国交锋哥本哈根”, 21世纪经济报道,2009年12月 12日 (http://www.21cbh.com/HTML/2009-12-14/157628.html).].
[2] “Gebenhagen qihou bianhua dahui: yi baiyi tai shao, Suoluosi zhizhao” [Copenhagen Climate Change Conference: 10 billion too little, Soros counsels], Renmin wang, 12 December 2009 [“哥本哈根气候变化大会:一百亿太少 索罗斯支招”,人民网,2009年12月 12日 (http://www.022net.com/2009/12-12/503444223344395.html).].
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