Interview with Su Wei, chief negotiator and deputy head of the Chinese delegation, at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun, Mexico.
National Journal: The U.S wants to end the Kyoto Protocol structure that says developed countries have to commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and developing countries like China and India don’t have to. U.S. negotiators say it is a flawed structure that doesn’t represent today’s economic reality. They want to create a new structure where countries like China must commit to cutting emissions.
China rejects this. Can you talk about why?
Su Wei: It’s very clear that China is still a developing country. We don’t think China is going to move from the category of developing country to developed country. In terms of the income per capita [gross domestic product], we are just one-tenth of the United States. We still we have 150 million people living under the poverty line according to United Nations standards. Of course, we know the position of the United States to try to rewrite the regime by not ratifying the Kyoto Protocol. We understand the position, but the Kyoto protocol is the result of long negotiations from most parties.
NJ: The U.S. says that because China is now the world’s largest carbon emitter, it should commit to cutting emissions.
Su: In terms of the so-called large emitters, it all depends in what terms you’re defining the large emitters. If we take China’s emissions in terms of per capita, since China has 1.3 billion (people), China will never be a big emitter. Of course, the United States, both historically and in terms of per capita is one of the largest emitters in the world. Because when we look at the climate change issue we’re not just looking at the current, or even future, emissions. When you’re talking about climate change, the emissions are in terms of concentrations of greenhouse gases, and some of the greenhouse gases have a long life, ranging from 50 to 200 years. Current concentrations that affect the climate are emissions of historical accumulation by developed country parties in their long years of industrialization—200 years. … The problem was caused, really, by the developed-country parties. And the developed-country parties have the obligation to address that issue. Of course the impacts will be felt by all the countries, all the population of the world. Since it’s a global challenge, it’s a common challenge; everybody should do his fair share to solve that issue, even if it was caused only by developed countries. But developed countries cannot alone solve that big challenge.
NJ: President Obama pledged last year in Copenhagen that the U.S. would lead the way in a new treaty and would pass climate legislation at home. It has failed to do that, and it appears clear that there will not be U.S. climate legislation for at least the next two years. How does China respond to that, given that the U.S. is urging China to make a global climate commitment?
Su: I don’t know why the U.S. is urging China, because China has been doing quite a lot, and we have good performances in terms of climate policy and actions. In the current five-year plan from 2006 to 2010, we have put in place a plan to lower energy intensity targets by 20 percent compared to year 2005 levels. We are in the process of formulating the next five-year plan. We already announced in Copenhagen that China is to lower its carbon emissions in relation to GDP by 40 to 45 percent by 2020. We’re going to incorporate those targets in our next five-year plans. We have been very active.
NJ: Is China doing more domestically than the U.S.?
Su: Of course, we have been very active in this. But we recognize that the U.S. is doing quite a lot after President Obama took office. I’m not going to make that comparison. But I would emphasize that we are doing quite a lot.
NJ: There is discussion that China’s next five-year plan [expected to be passed early next year] could include a carbon tax or cap-and-trade. What kinds of actions like this will we see coming from China in the next five years?
Su: We’ll be setting the targets early next year. The National People’s Congress will approve the next five-year plan. We would incorporate the targets by 2020. We will deploy a series of instruments from carbon policies, regulations, as well as market instruments, to achieve those targets. Of course the carbon tax issue as well as the carbon market—we’re exploring that to see what kind of role it could play in achieving the targets. We will have a combination of policies to achieve the targets, not just a tax or trade scheme.
NJ: The government is exploring a carbon market or cap-and-trade system. What would be the economic advantages of that system for China?
Su: Actually, we are not talking about economic considerations. But we would explore the market mechanisms in consideration of how we would best achieve the objective we set.
NJ: In the U.S., many members of Congress are strongly opposed to cap-and-trade and carbon markets. What would you say to lawmakers in the U.S. who say cap-and-trade and carbon markets are terrible policy?
Su: Maybe different countries have different circumstances or different situations. Maybe one instrument is appropriate for one country or particular region. Maybe [it’s] not suitable for others. I think the U.S. politicians have the right to choices about how they will implement policies and actions to address climate change.
NJ: Many people say that the U.N. climate process is falling apart—that it might not be possible to reach a new global treaty after Kyoto expires in 2012. Do you think that’s true? What would China do if the U.N. process falls apart?
Of course China is one of the most active advocates for multilateralism and for the United Nations to play a role in addressing this global challenge of climate change. Of course we would very much like to see the continuation of the current climate regime, particularly to have a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol.
In general all the parties are saying they are open to the issue of continuation of the Kyoto Protocol—except Japan. And the U.S. is another category, since it is not party to the Kyoto Protocol.
NJ: If Kyoto is not extended and there is no other treaty or structure, would China be comfortable moving ahead and simply negotiating bilaterally and multilaterally in a world without this structure?
We don’t want to see the collapse of the convention and the Kyoto Protocol. I don’t know what happens. That would be disastrous for the multilateralism and also for the United Nations process. In the face of such a serious challenge, all of the countries should show their responsibility.