World waits for US and China leadership from Beijing summit

Climate change is high on the agenda for presidents Obama and Xi next week, but outcomes remain hard to predict

Beijing: coal, air pollution and climate change are intimately connected (Pic: Flickr/Jens Schott Knudsen)

Beijing: coal, air pollution and climate change are intimately connected
(Pic: Flickr/Jens Schott Knudsen)

By CK Yong

As the climate changes, global climate governance as a political hot potato is urgently waiting for the leadership in the anarchic international society.

The EU just announced it its 2030 climate package and now it is the turn for the two biggest economies and greenhouse gas emitters, the US and China, to present their “climate homework”.

Officials from both countries are meeting in Beijing as part of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit over the next few days.

In parallel,US president Barack Obama and Chinese president Xi Jinping will meet on 12 November – and climate change is high on the agenda. In order to lay out a solid foundation for Obama and Xi’s bilateral meeting, the two sides are starting to discuss climate change issues.

Since 2013, the US and China have intensified their relationship on climate change and energy, establishing a joint climate working group under which information on their respective post-2020 plans to limit greenhouse gas emissions will be shared. Until now, tangible numbers have not put on the table.

However, there is a strong international sense that the US and China would shape the dynamic of the multilateral climate negotiations once they announce their targets.

Climate agenda

On Tuesday, the US secretary of state John Kerry stressed that the US and China must work together to deal with the most urgent international problem: climate change.

He was speaking at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Washington, in the presence of Chinese ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai.

Before John Kerry, Cui Tiankai in an interview with Foreign Policy also mentioned that climate change is the one of most important issues that will be addressed during the meeting.

Despite some differences, it is not difficult to figure out that the two sides have already reached a political consensus on the seriousness of climate change. In the last three meetings between Obama and Xi, climate change was always addressed, forming a very positive political discourse on climate governance.

In fact, in order to construct a “positive, cooperative and comprehensive US-China relationship” in the 21st Century, climate change cooperation is seen as a buffer zone to enhance the bilateral diplomacy.

John Kerry’s speech at this stage signals the importance of climate change on the political agenda and shows a high expectation of the bilateral meeting

In global climate governance, the US always played the “China card” to refuse taking climate commitments under the international law, taking the Kyoto Protocol as an example. But this time, the US is seeking to go hand in hand with China for the post-2020 climate governance.

Meanwhile, China shows more confidence and willingness to cooperate with the US and the international community.

National plans

“Next year, countries are supposed to come forward with their stated goals. And we hope that the partnership between China and the United States can help set an example for global leadership and for the seriousness of purpose on those targets and on the negotiations overall,” said Kerry.

What kind of example would they like to set for the rest of world? Will the US and China show leadership by announcing their national plans for climate action (intended nationally determined contributions or INDCs in the UN jargon)?

These INDCs are due to be published by the end of March 2015 and expected to form the basis of an international climate deal.

The rest of world is waiting for the US and China’s fair climate contributions. Notwithstanding the EU took a lead and announced its post-2020 climate target, it is still unclear whether China would announce its commitment earlier.

Either way, China’s climate targets will be much discussed with the US, along with energy security and clean energy.

The multilateral climate regime building does not just depend on two players. Therefore, to what extent the China and US would scale up the ambition of other parties such as Australia and Japan is a really important question at the Apec summit.

Emissions peak

China is aiming to peak its carbon emissions as soon as possible.

On 5 November, the Institute for Urban and Environmental Studies Chinese Academy of Social Science and China Meteorological Administration jointly published the Green Book of Climate Change. It predicts that peak will occur between 2025 and 2040, but there has been no official announcement.

While China still insists on the UN principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” (rich countries must take a greater share of the burden), it is more confident to talk about climate change at the international level.

China’s leadership is under pressure to deal with the air pollution domestically. Decision makers have already realized that the war on air pollution is entangled with climate change governance, as the large volume of coal consumption is the chief culprit.

According to the latest finding of the China Coal Cap Project led by the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC), based on 2012 statistics, emissions from coal consumption contribute to 62% of national total direct and indirect primary PM2.5 emissions, 93% of SO2 emissions, 70% of NOx emissions, 67% of smoke dust, and 84% of mercury in the air. Meanwhile, coal also contributes to over 65% of China’s CO2 emissions.

Additionally, on 31 October, Hu Xiulian from the Energy Research Institute of National Reform and Development Council (NRDC) publicly shared her report in which discovers, for the first time, that China’s energy system efficiency was 36% and its coal system efficiency was 32% in 2012.

It shows that there is an opportunity for China to take actions and make transitions toward a more sustainable way of economic and social development.

China is now working on its 13th Five-Year Plan and a nationwide carbon market is in its incubation period. An absolute coal cap is likely to be set in the near future.

Recently, it is reported in Chinese media that the capacity of coal production in China will peak around 2014-1016, according to the investment cycle. The national approved capacity is 5.5 billion tons.

So China is actively engaged in governing environment at a domestic and bilateral level. But it is still hard to predict to what extent that will influence its international ambition.

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