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Climate negotiations moving forward despite disputes

By Zhang Qingli, Zhang Jie, Mao Li | 2016-03-25 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Pan Jiahua (1957- ) is the director and a research fellow of the Institute for Urban and Environmental Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), and also serves as the director and doctoral supervisor of the Research Center for Sustainable Development at CASS.


For more than a quarter century after the United Nations established the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for a Framework Convention on Climate Change, international negotiations on the issue remained deadlock and the future of climate change policy was uncertain. The 2015 UN Climate Change Conference, known as COP 21, which convened in Paris last December, represented a breakthrough for global cooperation. What factors have stalled action on climate change in the past 25 years? And what role does China, as the largest developing country, play in the negotiations? CSST reporters sat down with Pan Jiahua to talk about these issues.


CSST: Before the convention of COP 21 in Paris, international political negotiations on climate change encountered a long series of obstacles. So what kinds of contradictions are there in terms of sharing the responsibility for emissions reduction?


Pan: The primary problem for political negotiations on climate change is how to share the obligation of greenhouse gas reduction. There is a general global consensus that greenhouse gas emissions should be reduced. But with regard to the questions of which countries should reduce emissions and how to set standards, there exists a larger dispute within the international community. Developing countries contend that developed countries should be the first to set a good model for others, arguing that developed and developing countries should share common but differentiated responsibility. However, developed countries stress that they have already reduced emissions and that any further reductions will be negated if developing countries don’t reduce theirs as well.

The contradiction between developing and developed countries has historical roots. Because developed countries took the lead in completing industrialization and emitted a mass of greenhouse gases during this process, it left developing countries at a disadvantage. They have to confront the adverse effects brought by climate change even if they didn’t discharge greenhouse gases in the process of modernization. Most developing countries lag behind developed countries in terms of environmental protection, industrial structure and socioeconomic development, which makes them more vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change and diminishes their capacity to adapt. The losses to developing countries brought by climate change are much bigger than those to developed countries.


CSST: There’s no doubt that reductions in greenhouse gas emissions need financial and policy support. What disagreements will this subject create among different countries in climate negotiations?


Pan: The funding is the vital part of climate negotiations. Developing countries propose that they can commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions but they lack funds, limiting their ability. In 2011, the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 17), which was held in Durban, South Africa, officially launched a Green Climate Fund. Since 2009, developed countries have pledged financial support to the tune of $100 billion per year for developing countries before 2020. In the process of negotiating the Paris Agreement, developing countries advocated that developed countries’ financial support after 2020 should be gradually raised on the basis of $100 billion per year, and public funds should account for the main portion of funds, which should be evenly spent in helping developing countries to reduce emissions and adapt to climate change. There is an institutional constraint that prevents some developed countries from providing public funds, which is that the use of taxpayers’ money has to be approved by the legislature. Thus, developed countries have never fully realized their commitment to provide financing. Developed countries propose that relatively developed emerging economics should also provide financial support. Which countries should provide funds, how much they should provide and how to evaluate the results are debated among the international community.

With regard to the legal framework of negotiations and confirmation of measurements, some countries demand that those established agreements should be legally binding so that signatories bear legal liability. Other countries argue that there’s no need to involve legal constraints and that the commitment should be relatively loose, voluntary and independent. Furthermore, there is some dispute about how to objectively measure a country’s progress toward emissions reduction goals. Some countries assert that each country’s emissions reduction should be measured to ensure the accomplishment of emissions reduction targets, but other countries insist that this is an issue concerning state sovereignty and other countries should not interfere.


CSST: Greenhouse gas emissions are related to energy consumption. Beyond the disputes on emissions reduction, does it closely relate to different countries’ development needs?


Pan: Yes. The subject of greenhouse gas emission is closely connected to energy consumption. Energy consumption correlates to economic development and living standards. The more highly developed the country is, the more energy it will consume and the more greenhouse gases it will emit. This involves the right of development. Developed countries were the first to realize industrialization. They consumed energy and damaged the environment, but developing countries are still struggling with the demand for industrialization. Some developing countries point out that developed countries try to occupy the moral high ground and utilize the issue of greenhouse gas emissions to restrain developing countries’ growth.

Development needs to evolve into a fight between interests and the right of discourse. Financial support is one of the most intractable issues in climate negotiations.


CSST: Political negotiations on climate change are the epitome of competing international political interests. From your perspective, what patterns of political games can you find in it?


Pan: Heavy disputes on the politics of climate change reflect the contradiction among international governance systems. The UN charter and various international treaties have already formed a basic pattern of international governance. From the perspective of previous experiences, developed countries received more benefits from the rules. Since developing countries’ ability to participate has improved, developed countries are unwilling to give up the right of rule-making, and developing countries are fighting for the power to set the rules of the game.

The game between geopolitics and interests of international economic blocs make the issue more complicated. In climate negotiations, the conflicts of interest among the EU, the Umbrella Group, the Alliance of Small Island States, the Group of 77 plus China, the Least-Developed Country Members and other groups can be characterized as struggles of geopolitical groups. Developed countries and developing countries belong to the North-South geographical relationship, which stands for the North-South divide. Least developed countries and small island states are geopolitical bodies as well. Because their power is relatively weak when divided, these countries collaborate and set up common interest groups. Even for OPEC nations, emissions reductions will result in the loss of benefits. So members of OPEC also have their own interests in climate negotiations.


CSST: What contributions has China made to the fight to stop global climate change?


Pan: In coping with global climate change and promoting greenhouse gas reduction, China holds a positive, constructive and responsible attitude. This is mainly reflected in China’s active participations in various negotiations about climate change. For the conclusion of Paris Agreement in 2015, China is certainly a major driver in the process, with strong political will, ambitious climate targets and consensus building with other parties and groups.

But we should realize that as a developing country, our development level is relatively low. China’s national income per capita lags far behind the world average level. Actually, China’s contributions to fighting climate change are far ahead. China’s commitment to reducing carbon intensity has already exceeded what we promised to the world. Also, China is making great progress toward  reducing fossil energy use. By 2013, the share of non-fossil energy in primary energy consumption accounted for almost 10 percent, and the installed renewable energy had grown as a proportion of total  capacity to 30 percent. Accounting for 29 percent of the total renewable energy investment of the G20, China invested more than any other country. Moreover, China has promised that it will establish the South-South Cooperation Fund on Climate Change to strengthen these ties, and China will provide financial support for them to the extent that it is able.


Zhang Qingli, Zhang Jie and Mao Li are reporters at the Chinese Social Sciences Today.