New thinking on climate change offers hope
World climate-change politics are entering a decisive phase. A United Nations climate summit has concluded it is not too late to introduce measures that will head off the most calamitous future scenarios and turn the tide of climate change. Beyond that, consensus has been stalled by the conflicting interests of developed and developing countries and the want of political leadership on how to reconcile them. An opportunity to advance it comes at this week's enlarged meeting of the Group of Eight countries in Germany, at which China will be a key participant.
Climate change will be one of the key topics for leaders of the world's richest nations, plus Russia, and their guests. It is already shaping up as a contentious political issue. Europe, the United States and China each go to the meeting with their own proposals. These may be seen as safeguarding their own interests. But they should also be seen as welcome signs that after so many years of no leadership, politicians are recognising that ways must be found to make economic development environmentally sustainable. It is therefore important that debate does not degenerate into a political standoff. Countries must be prepared to balance short-term national interest with the long-term goal of limiting the global economic dislocation from climate change.
Almost on the eve of the G8 meeting, Beijing defined the politics of climate change by unveiling its first national plan to combat it. China rejects mandatory caps on developing countries' emissions as unfair and counterproductive to economic development, with the risk of consequences even greater than that of climate change. Instead the plan promises administrative, economic and legislative measures to cut emissions through increasing power efficiency and promoting renewable energy. The target is to reduce energy consumption per unit of gross domestic product by 20 per cent from 2005 to 2010.
The plan includes key pledges to enlist the support of local authorities to cut emissions and use innovation as an alternative to mandatory emissions cuts. The first pledge means bringing regional and local administrations to heel and weaning them off the mantra of industrial development at any cost, often including disastrous damage to the environment. This will be no mean task, but one at which the central government cannot afford to fail. The second pledge means the use of new energy-saving technologies. It is such technologies that offer China and other developing countries the best hope of meeting economic goals without overshooting emissions targets. The most likely source of cutting-edge technology is the US, where venture capital is already taking up the challenge and the prospect of business opportunities. It is here that international co-operation could be crucial. Indeed, Ma Kai , minister in charge of the National Development and Reform Commission, has called on developed countries to provide financial support and allow technology transfer to developing countries.
The prospects for such co-operation are promising. For example, Washington and Beijing are exploring the possibility of energy consultation that would also cover related environmental issues. If developing countries become markets for advances by the US and other developed countries in energy-saving technologies that cut emissions without harming economic growth, the world could look forward to a better chance of avoiding the worst effects of climate change, and a new source of conflict.