China, U.S., and Climate: An Interview with Yang Fuqiang, WWF's Director of Global Climate Solutions
On Climate Change, "China has to say, this is my problem, and my solution"
For more than two decades, Dr. Yang Fuqiang has been a participant in the energy and climate change discussion in and around China. His career began as a researcher at the National Development and Reform Commission, the Chinese government's main economic planner, and continued for three decades in the realm of energy and the environment. Formerly head of the Energy Foundation's China office, he is now director of global climate solutions at the World Wildlife Foundation. We spoke with him recently in Beijing, before he left for the Barcelona round of climate talks. Look for the second half of our interview, about China's domestic efforts to tackle climate change, later this week.
TreeHugger: President Obama comes to China this month. What kind of impact do you think his visit will have on climate change policy between the two countries?
Yang Fuqiang: The question is will the Chinese government give him a gift. Because Obama has to give the Congress, the Senators, a sense of what China is doing, and what China is doing can boost Congress to move forward. Will China give him a gift?
I have no inside information. Traditionally the US president comes over and more or less, they definitely give him something. Cooperative agreements, programs - they'll establish some technology agreement or some treaty. But this time for climate change, China has to give Obama some gift he can come back and give to the Congress.
What kind of gift will it be, and what should Obama give to China?
We don't think the Congress's target [a 17 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2020 from 2005 levels] is good enough. They want Obama to use his reputation and will to do more. Next year, the Chinese will figure out their climate change plan for the next five years, but can we have some initial idea, or general idea, and give that to Obama. We will discuss it. We hope that the Chinese congress will continue to implement a 20 percent energy intensity reduction target [by 2020], or some kind of carbon intensity.
And renewable energy...China's target right now is 15 percent by 2020.
Fifteen percent - that's a bit of an old target. I understand the NDRC [the National Development Reform Commission, one of the highest government bodies in charge of economic policy] has formulated a new target for renewables. If it could announce it now, even if it can now say this target could be one percent higher, that could be a gift.
Even with a successful Obama-Hu meeting, do you expect any substantive agreement at Copenhagen between countries?
This time, no. Even though the WWF position is positive, and still says we'd like to find something, but the reality is I don't think it's going to happen.
What's the best thing that could happen at the conference?
The best thing is if all the countries' leaders or some ministers are open, and they find a final decision and say the UN has the authority to carry out these [emissions] reductions for the coming years. They have to have something, some political declaration saying they will move. Otherwise the UN cannot do it. They can say, next year, the next five years, we will get a new deal. The US is not ready yet. The Congress has too many differences with other countries.
How important is the issue of technology transfer, and how do you see that issue being advanced?
Tech transfer is something the developed countries are worried about. They think they'll lose their competitive edge. But I say, "don't worry." There are two approaches: technology transfer and technology cooperation, in the government and private sector. But now some are trying to mix up technology transfer and cooperation, and the private and public. Technology transfer is not too common because government progress is very slow, whereas the private sector is very fast and has more money. Another option is that the US has many national labs and these labs have many patents. But no private sector companies like to use them. So maybe they can find a market in China.
But you in the Western countries have to show some technology transfer. Because we Chinese and other developing countries think technology transfer is favorable for every country. You have to do something.
One huge technology that has already seen some cooperation is carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). But China up until now has been lukewarm to it. Can you envision China embarking on a massive effort to capture carbon and store it?
It has to. But at this moment Chinese government officials, their minds have to be changed, particularly at the NDRC. The question is, how can we have a very strong argument that says this is good, this technology is promising, and in the future we can cut costs? After a demonstration project, the facts tell them, data tells them, this is right for us. Otherwise, they don't believe it. they say it's too costly. It's very hard to convince them.
At the beginning CSS is very expensive, but based on the technology learning curve, in the future this is one area for the Chinese to gain the competitive advantage. For exports. because the technology is not cheap, China could sell it to developed countries.
Can you describe the importance of China for the other developing nations involved in climate discussions?
Without China, there would be no big country to represent them. African countries and most developing countries, their emission total is less than 16 percent. If China or India separate from them, all the developed countries only talk to China or India. So who cares about the other countries?
It seems like there's more cooperation over climate between the US and China than there used to be. Has cooperation improved under the new US administration?
I think so. Before, the US had a mixed message. They would talk to the Chinese government and say we'd like to do more to cut CO2 emissions but at the same time we are also concerned about human rights, and concerns about democracy system. But now they say, we're focused on climate change. That's much easier. For the human rights the Chinese system actually has improved gradually, and it has the potential to continue to improve. But now the discussion on climate change is much more focused.
The two big emitters have to sit down. Can you two countries show the world that you can do something through your cooperation and bilateral relationship, and give a good example rather than a fight?
Is that cooperation just as important as anything that could happen at Copenhagen, and what do you think both sides need to do?
Yes, definitely. The other developing countries say to the US, "why is your target so low, and why do I have to commit to a high target?" Meanwhile, China, the number one emitter, can do more. But in the final cut, they have to see other perspectives. So you, the U.S., commit first, as required by the treaty of the Kyoto protocol. After that time you can blame [the developing nations]. But at the beginning, I can blame you. And if you do a good job, then it's my turn.
What hopes do you have for the future direction of China's approach to the issue of climate change?
China has a solution and a responsibility. China can be a great beneficiary of climate change. We understand that we're doing it not for other people. We do it for other people but also for ourselves. In the future I'd like to see the Chinese public's idea shift in this direction, talk about China's responsibility. Don't take the "historical responsibility" track. We have to do something.
We can show to the world that we can do it. This time, we've mostly been blaming developed countries. But after three decades, China has to say, this is my problem, and my solution.
The debate over Kyoto -- the developing countries want the developed countries to recommit to that -- continues to rage. Could it end during climate discussions in Barcelona?
The important thing in Barcelona is for us to not argue anymore. In Bangkok, we said, let's go back to the previous track, talking about technology and funding. If the countries argue, that will only waste time. Everybody knows that the [debate over Kyoto] has been a problem. But now is no time to fix it, we need to move on. Even if you have a new treaty on the Kyoto Protocol -- how many years could we get? Phase II will be finished soon. In that time, we will say, can we have a new deal with all the countries? This is not a good time to talk about Kyoto. We need five years or six years or more. We need to put that Kyoto issue on the back burner.
So how optimistic are you?
Barcelona's only five days. We still think we have to get something done in Copenhagen. But in reality, we need to prepare for a half year or one year more. Maybe we'll need to wait for Copenhagen Phase II.
More on US, China and COP15 on Treehugger
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Are China and U.S. Really Headed For a Copenhagen Deadlock?