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Monday, June 18, 2007

CHINA OR THE U.S.?

The first to save the planet


HONG KONG — Focusing on climate change, the most recent Group of Eight meeting, chaired by Germany and attended by five of the world's biggest developing countries, marked a significant step forward in a battle for nothing less than the survival of humanity on this planet.

For one thing, the European Union, Canada and Japan agreed to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, compared to that of various baseline years. This compares with the Kyoto Protocol target of reducing emissions by 5 percent from 1990 levels by 2012.

Although the United States — the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases — did not commit itself to this target, it did agree to "seriously consider" it, as did Russia. This is a step forward, as U.S. President George W. Bush previously had been implacably opposed to any emission reduction targets.

Moreover, the role of the United Nations in combating this global problem has been strengthened. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon announced immediately that he would convene a special high-level meeting in New York on climate change on Sept. 24.

This will be followed by a meeting in Bali in December under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change to decide what to do after 2012, when the Kyoto Protocol expires.

The inclusion of China, India, Brazil, South Africa and Mexico — major developing economies — meant that the developed and developing countries are now engaging each other in a dialogue to determine what long-term strategies should be adopted and what their respective roles will be in tackling global warming.

The renewed momentum to deal with the climate change issue, which affects all countries, developed as well as developing, is welcome since scientists have warned that irreversible climate changes with very adverse effects can only be prevented if the countries of the world take immediate action.

The U.S., which normally assumes a position of leadership, has on this issue decided to be a follower. It wants to be sure that China will cut emissions before agreeing to do the same. But China points out that "on a per capita basis" it emits much less than OECD countries.

Besides, historically, China has contributed less than 8 percent of the total emissions of carbon dioxide from energy use since 1850, while the United States is responsible for 29 percent and Western Europe 27 percent, according to U.N. data.

Since there is no doubt that the developed countries are the ones that pumped out the greenhouse gases that are causing most of the global warming at present, China feels that it is only right that they be the ones to spearhead any move to clean up the environment.

While Beijing is correct on its facts, it must also realize that the developed countries are not going to allow it to pump vast quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere while they cut back drastically.

Besides, if China wants a voice in the upcoming negotiations, it must be willing to take steps to curb its own emissions. But China is unlikely to agree to any curtailment of emissions until the U.S. takes dramatic action.

In all likelihood, China would agree to cut emissions through improving energy efficiency and applying advanced technology rather than jeopardize its economic growth. This was the message in a national plan to address climate change released by China last week.

There is already general agreement on the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities" of developed and developing countries, with the G8 countries taking the lead.

At the G8 meeting, Chinese President Hu Jintao made it clear that China and other developing countries will continue to give priority to economic growth. "To meet their development goals," he said, "developing countries need to consume more energy."

China has voluntarily taken such steps as seeking to raise energy efficiency and supporting renewable energy resources. Yet, last year, it succeeded in reducing energy use only by 1 percent, falling far short of its 4 percent target.

Besides, China's situation is unusual because a substantial portion of its emissions result from its production of goods that are supplied to developed countries. In any accounting, a portion of China's emissions should be assigned to developed countries. This should reduce China's burden on cutting back emissions.

The U.S. and China should not play the game of Alphonse and Gaston, insisting that the other party act first. After all, they are in the same boat and neither can afford to allow it to capsize.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator. E-mail: Frank.ching@gmail.com


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