By Julian Wong Sep.9.2008
In: climate change, policy

Voices That Carry--Advocating for Carbon Caps in China

An influential voice from within calls for hard carbon emission targets.

A prominent policy academic has urged China to bind itself to carbon emission reductions.  The substance of the academic’s message is not new–that as a (the?) world’s leading emitter of greenhouse gases, China should take active steps to curb emissions.  What is new is that the messenger is coming from within, in a break from the official stance of Beijing, whose national climate policy focuses on reducing emissions intensity, i.e. emissions per unit of GDP, rather than reducing absolite emissions.

Tsinghua University public policy professor Hu AnGang (pictured right) argues that China stands much to gain, both economically and diplomatically, in imposing absolute emissions targets, even if the likes of the US continue to hold out in the global climate negotiations, reports Reuters.  Indeed, we’ve already examined how China is beginning to cash-in on the low carbon game.  In a climate plan proposed by Hu, China’s GHG emissions would continue to rise until 2020, as China climbs up the Kutznets curve, then enter a period of dramatic emissions reductions to 1990-levels by 2030, and then half that by 2050.

Sometimes, the messenger is as or even more important than the message.  A quick background check reveals Hu to be a highly influential policy adviser to the central government.  According to his biography on Tsinghua’s School of Public Policy & Management’s webpage:

Dr. Hu has important influence to China’s public policy making, as one of the most well-known policy advisers and Chinese economists to push China’s reform and development. Earlier in 1990s, he propounded many important suggestions that had been adopted by the central government, for example, establishing tax share distribution system between central and local government (1993), reducing the disparities of regional development (1994), prohibiting the army of engaging in commerce (1994), creating jobs as most priority goal of economic development(1997), balance between social development and economic development (2000),new conception of development based on people-centred (2000,2004).

I’ve argued before (in an interview with Social Bridges)  that in order to win the battle of ideas, we need “visionaries who can be champions of the sustainability cause. It is these people, who either by themselves or through innovative organizations at which they work, who are going to spread the green message globally.”  Many voices are calling for change, but some voices are heard louder than others, and when it comes to policy making in China, we expect that voices from within, especially amongst those who have the ears of the central government like Hu, are probably the best heard.

Despite China’s hitherto unwavering adherence to the concept of common but differentiated responsibilities (i.e that developing countries such as China should not be bound by hard targets and that developed countries, who are historically responsibile for the largest emissions cumulatively over time, should lead the way), Hu argues:

It’s in China’s own interest to accept greenhouse gas emissions goals, not just in the international interest…Like joining the WTO [World Trade Organization, in 2001], this should be used as international pressure to spur our own transformation…If China makes a 1 percent error in handling climate change, that could mean 100 percent failure in making [an international] agreement [on climate change].

When it was pointed out how radical it was to advocate binding caps on emissions given the history of the international climate negotiations, Hu responded philosophically, in reference to his own experience in policy advocacy on various issues over the years:

I’ve always started out in the minority but ended up as the mainstream.

Indeed, Hu’s clarion call to Beijing’s policy makers reverberates across the pacific where a different visionary, renown journalist and leading globalization commentator Thomas Friedman (in his new book Hot, Flat and Crowded) has also called upon his fellow Americans to turn the challenge of fighting climate change into an opportunity to generate new wealth.  The US and China, after all, should have a lot in common when it comes to energy security issues.  Both are economic powerhouses that are heavily reliant on foreign sources of oil (70% of US’s and 50% of China’s oil consumption is met by foreing sources of oil), and use coal as a predominant source of electricity generation (50% for the US and 70% for China).  These observations make cooperation on energy issues between both countries is a sensible and urgent foreign policy agenda.

They also make voices of “visionaries” like Hu and Friedman a little louder, and little clearer.

Comments (8)

  1. joon Sep.17.2008@2:57 am Reply

    hey julian – came across this interesting post by richard stuebi on his first visit to china and his ideas about cleantech there.

    best bit is his observation about language… i think that’s pretty spot on. but then again, people do manage, even without great interpreters. and, who’s to say china will need massive cleantech transfer anyway?

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