The US and China Play Chicken Over Climate Change


The United Nations Climate Change Conference wrapped up in Warsaw, Poland this weekend. The conference was not expected to produce revolutionary new agreements, but to hold preliminary discussions over a new global climate change treaty that is supposed to be signed in 2015. Even by those modest standards, the conference proved somewhat disappointing. Annie Petsonk, international counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund, told the Washington Post that the talks “are headed toward a C to C-minus for the overall effort.”

Disagreements between the United States and China represent one of the biggest obstacles to a global climate change regime. The conflict was on display in Warsaw. At one point, China, along with the G77 group of developing countries, walked out on the negotiations when developed nations refused to finalize details for a mechanism to reimburse developing nations for climate change damage. The subject of the debate, the Green Climate Fund, would require developed countries to provide $100 billion per year to help poorer countries adapt to climate change. “Funding is the key for the success of the Warsaw conference,” said Xie Zhenhua, head of the Chinese delegation to the UN climate change conference.

This schism is not solely a China-U.S. debate: Brazil, India, and Tanzania, among others, made statements criticizing the developed nations, while Russia, Australia and the EU all argued against developed nations having to foot the bill for global climate change. However, because the U.S. and China often take leadership roles for developed and developing nations respectively, their disagreements are representative of the entire schism. Likewise, if the two countries were able to come to an agreement, it would represent a huge step forward for global climate change negotiations.

China, speaking for itself and on behalf of the developing nations, strongly supports the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” which was originally introduced in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Under this agreement, developed countries, the greatest source of emissions historically, take more responsibility for climate change. In practice, this would mean that developed countries face steeper emission cuts while also helping fund efforts to adapt to and prevent climate change.

China still considers itself a developing nation, citing a low per capita GDP and high poverty rate. However, the climate change debate over common but differentiated responsibilities has been complicated by China’s development. Since the Kyoto Protocol was formed in 1997, China has become the world’s second largest economy and well as the largest emitter of carbon dioxide. Many of the developed nations (especially the U.S.) are simply unwilling to accept a climate change agreement that lists China as a developing nation without regard for its growing share of both the world’s wealth and worldwide emissions.

The United States has always been reluctant to accept drastic emissions cuts. Recently, this foot-dragging has been more and more tied to the United States’ economic rivalry with China — U.S. politicians are unwilling to commit to emissions cuts that would not apply equally to China, fearing that would put the United States at a disadvantage economically.

Meanwhile, China points to per capita emissions, where the U.S. is still the world leader, to argue that the U.S. should make the first move. According to the World Bank, in 2010 China produced 6.2 metric tons of carbon dioxide per capita, compared to 17.6 for the U.S. Based on this data, as well as the idea of historical responsibility, China refuses to accept a climate change regime that forces Beijing and Washington to commit to the same level of emissions reductions. Such an agreement would deprive China’s citizens of the benefits of development already enjoyed by Western nations, Beijing argues.

This creates a vicious cycle, where each country uses the other as an excuse for not acting. Unfortunately, without U.S. and China buy-in, global climate change negotiations cannot move forward. This problem is not new – similar disagreements helped scuttle the 2009 UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. The failure to reach a binding agreement at Copenhagen was a turning point for U.S. President Barack Obama, who had previously placed a large emphasis on preventing climate change. A personal effort by Obama in Copenhagen was not enough to bridge the gap between the U.S. and China. A few months later, Obama’s proposed cap-and-trade bill died in Congress. Obama’s administration hasn’t really tried to move the issue forward since.

Meanwhile, China has been taking concrete actions on climate change, especially as its historic levels of smog create both domestic and international pressure for action. Just a few days ago, China opened two experimental carbon trading systems in Beijing and Shanghai. China also has other carbon trading systems in the works, with one already open in Shenzhen and others expected to be established in the provinces of Guangdong and Hubei as well as the cities of Tianjian and Chongqing.

Still, most of China’s plans to reduce emissions will only affect the country’s carbon intensity, or carbon emissions as a percent of GDP. Even if China meets it stated goal of reducing carbon intensity by 46 percent between 2005 and 2020, China’s absolute amount of emissions are projected to increase by 73 percent over the same time period. Aware of this fact, China is considering setting absolute emissions targets in its next five-year plan, to be released in late 2015. Jiang Kejun, a fellow at the Energy Research Institute at the National Development and Reform Commission told China Dialogue that “China’s domestic policies are moving quickly, which means we can be more radical in international talks.”

The United States meanwhile is eyeing setting its own emissions targets in early 2015, according to U.S. special envoy for climate change Todd Stern. Despite a general agreement in the scientific community that the problem of climate change demands urgent action, it seems both the U.S. and China are content to play a waiting game, each hoping the other will agree to take action first.

November 26, 2013 at 10:36

It is unwise for China to place additional costs on its manufacturing base. USA can do it because USA has a shrinking manufacturing and agricultural base.

The world is yet to come to terms with a global view of matters. IMF voting rights is a classic example. So national interests must come first until such time a global level playing field comes into being. Don’t rush in to this where angels still dire the tread.

Oro Invictus
November 26, 2013 at 09:02

On the one hand, economic rivalry should not matter; even if the PRC doesn’t improve its pollution situation sufficiently, that doesn’t give others license to follow suit. If you’re on a sinking ship and you notice a person tearing apart the hull, at the very least you don’t join in with that person.

At the same time, sorry PRC, but pollution is not a per capita game, but one of absolutes. If the planet can sustain X amount of pollution and your nation-state is producing 2X, guess what? You’re still producing too much pollution, it doesn’t matter if you have 1 million or 1 billion people within your borders, it doesn’t change the fact that you’re producing too much. In fact, the population with 1 billion has an even bigger incentive to cut down on emissions, as they will feel the brunt of pollution’s effects much more than the population of 1 million.

Actually, this leads me back to my original bit with the boat; as I noted, the least people would do is not take part in speeding up the sinking of the ship, but ideally they would also help repair it will preventing the other party from tearing apart the vessel. Indeed, what needs to be done is to set up a mechanism that assists nations who are helping with the issue and penalizes those who are worsening it.

An example of such a system would be if each nation was assigned a maximum allotment of allowed emissions, which varies based on the physical amount of living space in the nation-state and the requirements of sustaining a population in the various regions (for example, colder regions would be allotted more allowance for pollution than warmer ones); meanwhile, the sum of all these individual nation-states’ allotments should be equal to or less than the amount the planet can sustain without (overtly) negative effect. Nation-states who fall under their allotment are provided with some form of incentive (which should be scaled to how far under their allotment they fall), while nations who go over their allotment are penalized (which should also be scaled to how far over their allotment they are). Such a system would provide room for developing nations to grow and for the equal distribution of environmental burdens across the globe.

Oro Invictus
November 26, 2013 at 09:03

Okay, The Diplomat site admins really needs to fix the site’s recognition of spacing in comments.

November 26, 2013 at 11:20

why dont you think per capita matters?

why should one american get to spend 4 times the carbon amount as one chinese?

we all should be reducing, but thats not the question here, the questions is how much does each of us reduce and who pays for it. so tell me again why each chinese person should take the same cuts as each american when each american output 4 times as much carbon in the first place.

think of this another way, lets say we all need to cut back on eating because food is scarce. why should the chinese, who barely have enough to eat be forced to give up the same amount of food as their fat american friends, even if china intakes more food overall because of the larger population?

another example. why should we tax the bottom 10% of Americans the same absolute amount asthe top 1%? because thats exactly what you are asking when you want china and america to make the same cuts without regards to per capita emissions.

Oro Invictus
November 26, 2013 at 12:25

… Except it wouldn’t require each person in the PRC to make the same level of cuts. American CO2 output per person is just under three times the amount per each person in the PRC (17.6/6.2≈2.84, not four as you suggested), such that (if we say, for this example, the US and PRC produce roughly the same amount of CO2) each American would have to also reduce their CO2 production by around three times the absolute amount each person in the PRC does.

Granted, each person in the US would still be producing more CO2 per person, but the US also retained a more reasonable population size. The same applies for every nation-state with a smaller population than the PRC. Why should the rest of the world have to use less just because the PRC government wants to maintain more people than what is environmentally sustainable?

I realize this may not seem fair to the individual people in the PRC, but the alternative would be unfair to everyone else.

November 28, 2013 at 10:26

This is certainly, in your own words, not fair to the individual people in all developing nations! In addition to providing for its own people, China is the manufacturing powerhouse for the rest of the world. It would not be viable, or fair to expect China to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions when it aims to decrease poverty and keep manufacturing.

As the US prides itself over innovation and leading the world in technology, doesn’t it make sense for the worlds most powerful nation to take the first step in taking action on climate change? Developed nations need be role models, to show developing nations that it is possible to achieve both low carbon emissions and high living standards, /per capita/. If it is not possible for developed nations, it is so hypocritical to expect that of other nations.

You also speak as if it is China’s fault that its population is growing, as if China has not put in place enough policies to try and reduce its population. The PRC government does not ‘want’ to maintain more people than what is environmentally sustainable, in fact it is common knowledge that the China is taking much more action in regards to the issue compared to India and other nations, even if those policies are violations of human rights. In addition, China is taking far more action in working to reduce CO2 emissions than most developed nations by investing in new technologies, trialling emissions trading schemes, etc.

Oro Invictus
November 28, 2013 at 12:42

1) In my own words, I said it appeared not fair to the people of the PRC. It in no way affects other developing nation-states as they aren’t producing nearly the same amount of emissions (except, perhaps, India, given current trends there).

2) I never said the US or other developed nation-states should not work towards decreasing their environmental impact even if the PRC does not; actually, I said the exact opposite in the very first paragraph of my first post.

3) Except the unsustainable population is the PRC government’s fault, insomuch that they aren’t doing anything to reduce their population to sustainable levels; if they really cared about providing for their people, they’d institute even stricter birth control (i.e. only one out of so many people may have a child) while dedicating as many resources as required to support the inevitable aging of the population until it is brought back to sustainable levels.

4) It doesn’t matter how much they spend or how much action they take if the absolute amount of pollution from the PRC still increases; it is astonishing how difficult this basic reality is for people to grasp. The simple fact of the matter is that, compared to the resources and effort the PRC would actually need to dedicate towards achieving even a modicum of sustainability, all of their current expenditures and efforts are ridiculously insufficient.
January 3, 2014 at 06:48

Absolute not per capita? Does that mean America should be compared to Belgium, or Cambodia?

This kind of blatant double thinking exemplifies why are in the kind of mess we are in now. By the way the ABSOLUTE amount America has contributed to global warming is still the highest, lol.

Share your thoughts

Your Name
Your Email
required, but not published
Your Comment

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief