The View from Beijing

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Despite China's need to "catch up" economically with the developed world, Chinese perceptions have evolved on the risks involved and what to do about it. Beijing has begun to see climate change itself as a potential drain on the Chinese economy and a source of popular instability. Yet as a developing country with over three times as many people as Europe and four times as many as the United States, China views at least the metrics of climate change differently from those countries. China's greenhouse gas emissions have dramatically risen with its astounding economic growth since 1979, but Beijing takes issue with three ways in which emissions are typically measured.

First, annual current emissions or projections dominate most discussions, but instead, Beijing cites cumulative historical emissions to assess who is responsible for the problem. According to the World Resource Institute's Climate Analysis Indicator Tool (CAIT), the United States and EU emitted over 55 percent of the carbon dioxide from 1850 to 2003, whereas China was responsible for less than 8 percent. From China's perspective, those who are most responsible for causing the problem in the past should make the greatest sacrifices to address it.

Second, while others look at total national greenhouse gas emissions, Beijing cites its low per capita GHG emissions. On this measure China ranked hundredth in the world in 2000, according to the CAIT. From its perspective, China should not be penalized simply for having a lot of people, particularly when it is already faced with the challenge of economically providing for them.

Finally, Beijing also focuses on efficiency, or energy intensity, the ratio of energy consumption to GDP, and consequently to emissions intensity, or the ratio of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions to GDP. From 1980 to 2000, while the value of China's economy quadrupled, its energy consumption only doubled, so it improved its energy intensity dramatically.31 Collectively, these measures lead Beijing to the position, as expressed by the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu, that "the key issue of the current international negotiations on climate change is that developed countries must continue to take the lead in cutting emission of greenhouse gases."32

While China's views on climate are moderating, its top priority, quite simply, remains economic growth, which officials cite as a "right" for developing countries. At the September 24, 2007, UN High-Level Event on Climate Change, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi introduced his remarks by saying, "Climate change is an important development issue."33 In 2006 Chinese state councilor Hua Jianmin also at least sought to deflect international pressure, making the converse argument that "economic development is not only a prerequisite for the subsistence and progress of human beings, but also a material foundation for the protection and improvement of the global environment."34

What has changed recently, however, is that China has begun to see the consequences of environmental damage generally, and climate change specifically—drought, crop shortages, and typhoons—as threats to economic growth. A February 2007 Lehman Brothers report cited estimates by Chinese researchers that environmental pollution in 2004 cost the Chinese economy 3.1 percent of GDP.35 At the end of 2006, the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology claimed specifically that "global climate change has an impact on the nation's ability to develop further."36 That change in perspective means that China no longer views climate change and economic growth as mutually exclusive priorities, but as somewhat intertwined.

Chinese concerns about the environment transcend economic concerns and extend to the maintenance of social stability itself, instability being a terrifying prospect for the Chinese leadership. Across the country thousands of Chinese have already rioted, as in the 2005 incidents in Huaxi village and in Xinchang (see also chapter 4 of this volume, by Jonathan Podesta and Peter Ogden). Even though both of these demonstrations targeted just factory pollution, they showed that the Chinese people are willing to speak out and to take action over access to clean water.

Chinese officials are aware of the threat that global warming represents for their country. In early 2007 the deputy director of China's office of Global Environmental Affairs in the Ministry of Science and Technology, Lu Xuedu, pointed out that climate change will cause river levels to decline and droughts and floods to increase, and he warned specifically that demand would outstrip the supply of water in western China by up to 20 billion cubic meters (700 billion cubic feet) between 2010 and 2030. Qin Dahe, an expert at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, also raised the concern that glaciers on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau could shrink from 500,000 square kilometers (195,000 square miles) in 1993 to 100,000 square kilometers (39,000 square miles) in 2030, reducing the meltwater that feeds many major rivers in Asia and jeopardizing the water supply for up to a billion people.37

A columnist for the London Financial Times, Gideon Rachman, put it best: "The government in Beijing faces a dilemma. Terrified of social unrest, it is reluctant to do anything that might slow economic growth—such as stopping the building of coal-fired power stations. Yet, water shortages are already causing social unrest in the country side and the water table is falling fast in Beijing."38 Clearly, what China is willing to do to mitigate or adapt to climate change will be shaped by economic pressures, but climate change is now viewed not just as an environmental issue but also as an economic problem and a threat to political and social stability.

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