It is a long-held truth that China will inevitably stride on to the centre stage of world affairs as it grows in power and influence. China has no doubt become a major player in trade, development and the environment. More crucially for the topic at hand, China became the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide in 2007, overtaking the United States for the honour and in the last two years has only widened the gap. As one of the largest contributors to climate change Chinese consent is clearly crucial to any agreement (however limited) in Copenhagen and its now necessary successors. However, does this all add up to make China the linchpin of Copenhagen? In short, no.
China has a lot to gain from any potential agreement that will be reached. While Chinese emissions are clearly of enormous damage to the global environment they are no less deleterious to the Chinese themselves. Plenty of statistics are available that illustrate just how much of a problem this is for China. A 2007 paper (free summary) found that the loss in GDP due to losses in national health were 1.8% in 1997 with thousands dying prematurely each year. The paper further argued that pollution controls could actually raise China’s growth rate. While a more up to date World Bank report in conjunction with the Chinese SEPA (State Environmental Protection Agency) found that water and air pollution in China has cost the country 3.5%-3.8% of its GDP in public health costs and premature deaths.
China’s own independent attempt to measure the damage caused was also a shock for its leadership. ‘Green GDP’ was first calculated for 2004 and was an attempt to include environmental damage in growth rates. That damage was estimated to be in excess of $510 billion Yuan (or 3% of China’s economy). So damaging were these estimates that in 2007 the entire project was scrapped for lowering growth rates to levels considered politically unacceptable by the Chinese government.
All of this paints a clear picture of a tremendous cost to China in its quest for growth, costs that it has found increasingly difficult to ignore, taking some, though generally tentative, steps toward addressing. Copenhagen represents a potential boon for China; the perceived necessity for the developed world to pay the developing world would give China the chance to be at least partly compensated for steps that it increasingly acknowledges it must take. The biggest hurdle is exactly how much that final sum of money will be and how much China will have to cut its emissions by to get it. But at the same time, the cut in pollution for China, while costly, will also have a beneficial effect on its citizen’s health and its own growth rate.
Looking to Copenhagen and beyond, the ball is very much in the court of the developed world. China wants an agreement and very much needs to start cutting its emissions for its own sake and benefit. While the developed world certainly has its own motivations to ensure cuts in world emissions, most justifications tend to look some way into the future and the dangers of a temperature rise beyond two degrees. China’s environmental costs are very much in the here and now for it to tackle.