Beijing, CHINA—On Monday, April 23, Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), flew over from India to speak at a forum on developing a low-carbon economy. China was expected to greet him with its much-awaited climate change policy. Instead, it deferred.

With many countries, such a move might be seen as stalling. But in the opaque realm of Chinese politics, the delay could mean that the country—which has maintained that as a developing nation, it should be exempt from taking serious action on climate change—is actually considering altering its stance.

On April 25, the day after the announcement was due, a headline on the English site of the Xinhua news agency read, “China attaches importance to climate change.” While the headline may sound as though the nation was simply paying lip service to the issue, veteran China observers say that there may actually be some truth in it.

China’s record on climate change has been spotty. At IPCC sessions this spring, China, Saudi Arabia, and Russia pushed to tone down the language of relevant scientific reports.  But global pressure is now thrusting China into the spotlight. The week before Pachauri visited Beijing, an expert at the International Energy Agency ventured that China would overtake the US in greenhouse gas emissions this year—years earlier than the agency had initially predicted. While emissions data from China can be unreliable, the prediction drove home the idea that China’s accelerated growth will have serious ramifications for the world’s climate unless it rethinks its position on the issue—and fast. 

Yang Ailun, an energy analyst with Greenpeace in Beijing, says the Chinese government may be taking more time to issue a policy on climate change because it is aware of how its stance will affect the country’s international reputation. “There is increasing international pressure on China to do something about climate change,” she says. “It seems the Chinese government is trying to get some space in which to put together a more coordinated response.”

Haibin Zhang, a professor at Peking University’s School of International Studies who specializes in environmental policy, agrees that the issue is forcing serious reflection in China. He compares China’s potential adoption of a new climate change strategy to its entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001. “Before China entered the WTO, there was a very big debate,” he says. “It’s quite similar now. How much responsibility should we take? What’s the interest, and what’s the cost?”

China’s National Coordination Committee on Climate Change, the body responsible for creating policy on the issue, draws representatives from ten different ministries in areas ranging from agriculture to meteorology and is overseen by the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the agency broadly responsible for economic development. In earlier statements, NDRC vice minister Xie Zhenhua has suggested that reforestation, renewable energy, and emissions reduction projects under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism will form important parts of China’s strategy for minimizing the extent of climate change.

Beyond its disproportionate contribution to the world’s greenhouse gas levels, China looms large because any policy it adopts could set an example for the developing world—particularly for other nations experiencing rapid economic growth, such as India, South Africa, and Brazil. Pachauri’s visit last week underscored the increasing influence of Chinese policy in such countries.

In a roundtable gathering at Peking University, Pachauri suggested to top policy analysts, scientists, and environmental activists that China and India cooperate on climate change. “We have a large rural population in both countries,” he told the group. “We’ve got to come up with a way to create sustainable energy solutions for rural areas.”

Pachauri is not alone in highlighting the importance of new energy strategies in China. On April 25, Greenpeace and the European Renewable Energy Council released a report stressing the value of renewable energy in Chinese climate change mitigation. The report suggests that China could keep its greenhouse gas emissions constant by increasing its 2010 energy efficiency target by just 3.7 percent and by emphasizing wind and solar energy over other alternative sources. “The government is already very close to our targets,” Yang says. Last week, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao also announced that the nation would phase out tax breaks for industries that generate lots of pollution.

When China’s climate change policy is released, it will likely build on these initiatives, an important first step.  Peking University’s Zhang says that for China to take more drastic measures, however, the US would have to finally accept emissions caps under the Kyoto Protocol. “Developed countries have made the biggest contribution to global warming and have the advanced technology to fight it,” he says. “If developed countries take the lead, sooner or later China will follow.”

Originally published May 1, 2007

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