Q&A with Ailun Yang: China’s position at the climate talks

Ailun Yang is a Senior Associate on the emerging economies team at the World Resources Institute, where she leads efforts to build the case for low-carbon development in major developing countries such as China and India. Ailun is also an expert on China-US relations on the issue of climate and energy. She gave us an essential brief on China’s position at the climate talks, and what to look out for between now and 2015.

In 1997, the then chairman of oil company Exxon, Lee Raymond, gave a talk in Beijing to the World Petroleum Congress in which he argued that China should resist the U.S. and Europe by blocking any agreement in Kyoto as it would slow Chinese economic growth. Do you think this had an impact on China’s stance on climate change?

Ailun Yang — In 1997 China was a strong supporter of Kyoto, because its economy was less developed, and the level of emissions was quite modest. At that time, China saw climate change as the historic responsibility of developed countries, and they did not follow Exxon’s advice! Today, China is the world’s number one emitter of CO2. In terms of its international influence, it’s a totally different story.

Many observers say that the final outcome the climate negotiations in 2015 will depend on a bilateral deal between China and the U.S. Do you agree with this view?

I disagree. Certainly what they agree on is important, and that will shape the final deal. But they also disagree on many things, and the key here is for other actors and the international process to apply pressure to narrow these differences.

At Copenhagen, people believed that it was just about China and the U.S. This perception reduced pressure on others to push them to agree on certain things. For example, they have big disagreements on the compliance issue – how binding should the US target be, how much should the Chinese target be under scrutiny. Unlike some in our community, I don’t think that each time they talk, it’s going to end up in a secret deal.

Can you talk a bit about China’s role as de facto leader of the so-called Group of 77 – a coalition of developing countries at the UN?

Just because you’re a small country doesn’t mean you have no leverage. Pressure from developing countries on China is very important. China wants to be seen as the leader of those countries, they don’t want to be pushed to the other camp. Europe, Japan, Australia are all big trading partners and have influence on China’s position too.
Basically this is a time of changing geopolitical dynamics. Many countries are also experimenting with new diplomatic approaches.

At Copenhagen, for example, China was not yet used to the international attention. Emerging countries are still on a learning curve when it comes to international diplomacy.

What are you watching for between now and 2015 on China’s position in the climate talks?

The biggest driver for climate action in China is domestic imperatives. Efforts to tackle air pollution are the main driver for a lot of strong measures, such as controlling the coal consumption. China is also taking steps to restructure its economy to deal with the over-supply of industrial products. This could mean shutting down ineffective factories, which would have a big impact on emissions levels.

Can you talk a little about climate change as an issue in China at the national and international levels? Is there tension between the two, given the multiple forces at play among national, provincial and local levels.

There is overlap, and this is because it’s all about energy, which is about coal. Coal accounts for 70% of China’s total energy mix. China consumes more coal than the whole rest of the world put together. It’s very, very big. There are strong reasons for China to tackle domestic coal consumption – it is possible that the country takes a lot of actions domestically but doesn’t bring them to the international table. A country can commit to these targets – this could be part of the Chinese Five-Year Plan. If the overall environment is not ambitious enough, countries might not commit their best efforts to the international process.

China will be looking at a handful of countries about what they bring to the international table, and then decide if they take out their best card. What we’ve heard is that China might consider a total carbon cap. If so, this would be significant and positive for the international process.

What is the influence of non-state actors on climate change policy in China?

In China, the concept of the state is wider than elsewhere. Many of the biggest emitters are state-owned enterprises. Most researchers work in government-affiliated research institutions. However, general public and the NGOs, with the help of social media, are playing an increasingly important role in pushing for environmental solutions. The air pollution campaign is the best example.

You are known for your work on the global coal market. What is the potential for progress here, and how much of it depends on so-called “clean” coal?

First of all, there is no such thing as clean coal. No matter how you burn it, coal is always dirty. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology can take away the CO2 while you burn coal, and then store it underground. Given the urgency of climate change, technologies as such are being considered. However, I do believe ultimately we should be looking at a 100% renewable energy world.


Written by . Published on August 14, 2014. Last edited on August 19, 2014.

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