China and the Global Climate 'The West Is Responsible'

Progress towards a new global climate agreement has been slow. SPIEGEL spoke with China's head climate negotiator Yu Qingtai about Western responsibility for CO2 emissions in China and frustration in the developing world.


SPIEGEL: China is now the largest emitter of CO2 in the world. Is China recognizing its responsibility for climate change?

Yu Qingtai: We take climate change very seriously, but don't forget that we are 1.3 billion people. The difference in per-capita emissions between China and the developed nations is still huge. You can't tell Chinese people that being born in China means being allowed just 20 percent or 25 percent of the CO2 emissions allowed somebody born in Europe.

SPIEGEL: So your emissions will grow from 4.6 tons per-capita until they reach Western levels of 10 to 20 tons per-capita?

Yu Qingtai: No way. We don't want to catch up with the dangerous emission levels in Europe or the US. That would be very bad for the world, and for us. We have to find a different path, a better, sustainable path. But we won't allow the West to stop Chinese people from buying cars in the name of the climate just so they can continue buying cars themselves. That would be totally unacceptable. I am strongly committed to combating climate change, but at the same time I am proud that more and more of my countrymen can afford a car and go to work in a car.

SPIEGEL: So emissions from cars will grow endlessly?

Yu Qingtai: Just look at the new regulations we are introducing for automobile CO2 emissions. We are striving to be as strict as the EU and some of our regulations are stricter than the US. That will transform our domestic car industry. Heavy tariffs will be introduced for large, fuel guzzling cars like SUVs in an effort to encourage the purchase of smaller and more fuel-efficient cars. This applies to both domestically produced and imported cars. Electric cars, on the other hand, will get subsidized.

SPIEGEL: Why isn't China trying to avoid the misguided consumption practices of Western countries in the first place?

Yu Qingtai: We don't want to deny our people the hope for a better standard of living. We are striving to do it in a more sustainable manner. Our national programs to combat climate change are already very ambitious. For example, we are about to improve our energy efficiency by 4 percent each year, we will expand the use of renewables and nuclear energy and we will increase forest coverage to 20 percent. Our track record will not pale in comparison to anybody else's.

SPIEGEL: Why, then, haven't you yet been willing to commit to international CO2 targets and remove obstacles for the US to come along?

Yu Qingtai: Because there is still a fundamental difference between China and the industrialized nations. People look at our impressive growth rates but they forget that we are still a developing nation with tens of millions of people still living in poverty. Western countries are responsible for most of the accumulated CO2 in the atmosphere. Their historic responsibility is undeniable but still some Western countries try to blame the developing world in order to distract attention from their own failures.

SPIEGEL: Do you think that China and the administration of US President Barack Obama will be able to find a compromise?

Yu Qingtai: We already have agreed on joint efforts to develop various technologies for fighting climate change. If you look closely, the US and China face many similar challenges, such as heavy dependence on coal and the need to improve energy efficiency. We have many common interests. So I think we will find more common ground as we move forward.

SPIEGEL: China has become the "world's factory." Have industrialized nations outsourced their CO2 emissions to China?

Yu Qingtai: Chinese scholars reckon that 15 percent to 20 percent of Chinese emissions stem from products that end up in foreign markets, in particular in the US and Europe. We deliver inexpensive products of good quality for the world, but the resulting emissions are counted only as Chinese emissions. The pattern is similarly unfair in other developing nations. So we need to find a way to adjust for that in the international climate negotiations. This has to be taken into account.

SPIEGEL: Still, wouldn't it be in China's interest to become Asia's leader when it comes to the environment?

Yu Qingtai: We are fully aware that it is also in our own national interest to be part in the international fight against climate change. For a country with 1.3 billion people, food security is a major concern. If harvests fail because of frequent extreme weather conditions as a result of climate change, such as droughts and floods, nobody will be able to fully help us meet the challenge of food security. Most of our economic centers are located along the coastlines. If sea levels rise, the whole Chinese and world economy will suffer. That's why we need bold action.

SPIEGEL: Time is beginning to run short. The Copenhagen summit, at which the world hopes to agree on a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol, is only five months away. What's your sense of the progress towards an international agreement?

Yu Qingtai: Among developing nations there is a general sense of frustration -- and China shares this frustration. In a United Nations convention 17 years ago, industrialized nations committed to reducing their CO2 emissions and to helpíng developing countries with financial resources and technology transfer to move into a greener future. But only a very few countries have actually tried to live up to their promises.

SPIEGEL: Have you received any convincing offers when it comes to financial assistance?

Yu Qingtai: When we talk about finances, developed nations refer to markets and private companies as a source for additional money. But after years of doing nothing, merely pointing to the markets is an abandonment of your own commitments as governments.

SPIEGEL: Might that be a chance for China to grow into an international leadership role itself?

Yu Qingtai: We invest huge resources in science and technology and have dedicated large chunks of our economic stimulus package to green technology. But still we are a developing country with a relatively lower technological level, and very often we developing countries can't afford the technology we urgently need in order to achieve lower carbon emissions. What we need is a totally new level of cooperation in science and the sharing of the best green technologies.

SPIEGEL: Western companies don't like to share technologies. They want to profit from them.

Yu Qingtai: At the negotiating tables, Western governments tell us they don't own these new technologies, so they can't give them to us. But technology transfer is a commitment undertaken by the national governments of developed nations -- and they should make it happen. We totally respect the intellectual property rights of the companies that develop those technologies. But why not set up a fund to compensate the companies for lost revenues and the sharing of intellectual property while making the most innovative technologies available to the whole world?

SPIEGEL: So the German government would pay Siemens, for example, to offer China their most efficient power plants at a far cheaper price than normal?

Yu Qingtai: Yes, that would be one way of making energy efficient technology more affordable to developing countries. There are many ways to move forward if you have the political will to do it. That will is lacking so far and the result is that the developing world is growing with the help of old, inefficient and carbon-intensive technologies.

SPIEGEL: Do you think an agreement will be found at the UN summit in Copenhagen in December?

Yu Qingtai: I am still an optimist. If we fail, it would influence not only our lives but the lives of generations to come in a very negative way. We have all these different positions and targets in our minds, but we must work seriously to make sure that the Copenhagen conference succeeds. Because in the end, if we don't solve this crisis that affects us all, we will all be hurt.

Interview conducted by Christian Schwägerl

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