China Would Gain From Carbon Caps May 28, 2013 Since the failure to agree binding international carbon emissions targets in Copenhagen three and a half years ago, the best to be said for global climate negotiations is that they have at least kept alive – just – the aspiration to strike a deal. Any prospect of actual success, however, remains shackled by Beijing’s unwillingness to commit to legally binding emissions caps, and the refusal of important rich country polluters, above all the US, to accept limits that are not also binding on China. Pointing the finger at China is in part self-serving – Washington has more than its fair share of isolationists and climate sceptics who do not want the US to curb its emissions in any circumstances. But blaming Beijing is justified, whatever the motives. China now pumps more CO2 into the atmosphere than any other country. A deal without Beijing will fail not only diplomatically, but also in terms of the world’s ability to bring emissions under control. The possibility that China might drop its opposition to binding carbon caps is therefore momentous – if it materialises. That is a big “if”. The country’s economic planning policy is reportedly considering a carbon cap for its 2016-20 five-year plan. But such a policy remains at the drawing board for now. Even if it gains champions within the government, it will encounter strong resistance, in particular from interests in heavy industry. And deciding on self-imposed domestic caps is not the same as signing up to legally binding international commitments. Should Beijing go down the route of capping its carbon emissions, it would benefit the world at large, bringing it a little closer to necessary but elusive collective action on climate change (only a little, as the US will remain a stumbling block). But China will also find that this is in its own interest, for three reasons. First, it dovetails with Beijing’s other policy priorities. One such priority is to tilt the economy away from infrastructure, heavy industry and imported resource dependence. Another is to remedy China’s shocking pollution problem whose negative effects range from people’s health to politicians’ popularity. This has already led to limits on how much coal power stations can burn, to which any new carbon caps could be linked. Second, China’s pivotal role in any global climate deal means that “conceding” emissions caps could make it a powerful voice in negotiations for the next climate summit, in Paris in 2015. Beijing would be in a strong position to shape the new deal regarding, for example, how targets are allocated between countries and how the developing world is compensated. Third, playing a constructive role would alter at a stroke the world’s perception of a prickly rising power unwilling to contribute to a global system of rules. China’s dominance would be accepted less grudgingly if it exercised power with commensurate responsibility. It would gain influence in global standard-setting, whether in carbon reduction or other areas. Therein lies Beijing’s true prize. Taylor Scott International

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