Stern words in Beijing

By Bryan Walker 13/09/2009


Nicholas Stern has been in the news again lately.  He spoke to students at the People’s University in Beijing on Friday with characteristic directness. He pointed out that although China is still a long way behind countries like the US and Australia in per capita emissions there are places in China where the picture is different. Thirteen Chinese provinces, regions and cities have higher per capita emissions than France. Six also overtake Britain.

“There are many parts of China where emissions intensity and emissions per capita are looking much like some of the richer countries in Europe.”

He went on to warn that if global emissions continue at the current level there is a 50% chance of a more than five degree global temperature rise within a century.  A rise, he commented, that has not been seen on this planet for 30 million years, let alone the 200,000 for which we humans have been here. 

“This type of temperature change involves radical dislocation, it involves re-writing where people can live, it would involve the movement of hundreds of millions, probably billions, of people.”

 ”This would result in extended, serious global conflict.”

It is increasingly obvious that the engagement of China in emissions reduction will be as essential as that of the US.  The recent very welcome Japanese announcement that it will now set a 25% reduction target against 1990 levels is premised on an agreement which includes China and India. Stern, who was once a lecturer at the People’s University,  knows that China is so big that if it does not join the efforts to curb greenhouse gases then the efforts for a global deal will fail.  However he is confident that China will  play its part in tackling the task ahead.

“China will use its leadership… to explain to the developed world what their obligations are, and China will support developing countries as a whole.”

In this context the recent remarks of Washington senator Maria Cantwell during a visit to Beijing may be a hopeful pointer. She thought Obama’s planned visit to China in November was likely to result in a new bilateral agreement to combat climate change. 

“If you are producing 40 percent of emissions — which is what China and the United States are together — what a legacy, and what a great relationship you could create by saying that’s what these two great countries stepped up to do.”

She also said she thought China had underestimated the resolve of the United States to “make the transition” to a low-carbon economy, suggesting that once China appreciated this the way forward to agreement wouold be more staightforward.

Joseph Romm, commenting on the report in Climate Progress, said that such an agreement would boost the chances for Senate passage of the climate and clean energy bill, and that a Senate vote should not occur beforehand.

Beijing and Washington joining forces to fight climate change would be the strongest and most hopeful message the world has yet received from its politicians that the threat is real and the need to confront it is greater than the issues that commonly divide us.  Even Wellington might take note.