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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Air Date: Week of September 25, 2009

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Hu Jintao, who has been President of China since 2003, is praised for his reserved, low-key leadership style.

US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao topped the list of world leaders to speak at the recent United NationÂ’s climate summit, which also included eloquent pleas from Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. President Hu's announcement on ChinaÂ’s commitment to renewable energy and improving efficiency stole the show. But not everyone was impressed with ChinaÂ’s pledge. Elizabeth Economy is the director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Host Steve Curwood asks her why sheÂ’s skeptical of ChinaÂ’s climate fanfare.


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. IÂ’m Steve Curwood.

YOUNG: And IÂ’m Jeff Young. The UN has been talking for years about what its scientists call the dire threat from global climate change, but for the first time the leaders of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases -- China and the United States -- stood on the same platform to offer their solutions. The occasion was a climate summit at the United Nations.

CURWOOD: Mohamed Nasheed, the president of one of the worldÂ’s smallest nations --- the low-lying Maldive Islands -- set the tone of the summit as he called on the worlds most polluting nations take action. Otherwise, according to scientists, ice will melt, tropical storms, floods and droughts will increase, and sea level will rise sharply.

NASHEED: If things go business as usual, we will not live, we will die. Our country will not exist. We cannot come out from Copenhagen as failures. We cannot make Copenhagen a pact for suicide.

YOUNG: Speaking for the developed nations, President Barack Obama added his own sense of urgency.

OBAMA: The threat from climate change is serious, it is urgent, and it is growing. Our generation’s response to this challenge will be judged by history, for if we fail to meet it—boldly, swiftly, and together—we risk consigning future generations to an irreversible catastrophe.

YOUNG: China has now passed the United States as the worldÂ’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. Together, the two create 40 percent of the global total.


Hu Jintao, who has been President of China since 2003, is praised for his reserved, low-key leadership style.

YOUNG: Speaking through an interpreter, Chinese President Hu Jintao emphasized that his country was already cleaning up its act, by improving energy efficiency, increasing carbon-free energy production and soaking up global warming gases with forest growth.

CURWOOD: While President Hu did not pledge to put caps on his countryÂ’s overall green house gas emissions, he did commit to reducing carbon intensity, by quote, a notable margin. The speech prompted some, including UN Climate Chief Yvo de Boer to, quote, commend China for its leadership.

But Elizabeth Economy was not so impressed. She is an author on environmental issues in China and the Director for the Asian program at the Council on Foreign Relations, and she says ChinaÂ’s commitments did not go far enough.

ECONOMY: Well, I think that President Hu Jintao has brought a positive attitude (laugh) toward being a responsible player, a responsible partner to address the challenge of global climate change. I donÂ’t think that heÂ’s brought to the table what the Europeans, or the Japanese, or the United States even, really wants to see coming out of China, which is namely a pledge or promise to cap emissions even at some point further down the line.

Instead what weÂ’ve gotten from President Hu Jintao is pretty much what he said before, which is that he will promise to curb the growth of ChinaÂ’s carbon dioxide emissions, he will continue with an aforestation program, and he will pursue the development of renewable energy within the countryÂ’s energy mix to try to obtain a goal of about 15 percent by 2020.

CURWOOD: So, what do you make of this report from the International Energy Agency that says, in essence, that China will move towards a forefront of combating climate change by 2020, if it meets its own stated targets that Hu Jintao presented on greenhouse gas emissions?

China's energy consumption has been steadily growing by 7% annually.

ECONOMY: I guess IÂ’m puzzled by that because again the President Hu Jintao has not made any commitments in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The only pledge that heÂ’s made is to get, you know, the role of renewables within the countryÂ’s energy mix up to 15 percent by 2020, and I donÂ’t think that will put them at the forefront of combating climate change.

CURWOOD: I think that more or less direct quote from the IEAÂ’s chief economists says, quote, if China reaches its target, and in the past it has reached most of its targets of this kind, its emissions growth will have declined so much by 2020 that it will be the country that has achieved the largest emissions reductions.

ECONOMY: (Laugh) Well, I think the only other possible explanation is that in many instances the International Energy Agency, the United Nations, have been very much cheerleaders for China – encouraging them even as they take the smallest steps toward meeting their environmental or climate goals. Again, since they haven’t made any commitments, it is very difficult to understand exactly what the chief economist is talking about.

CURWOOD: So, letÂ’s look at what he had in the speech. President Hu said weÂ’ll develop renewable energy, nuclear energy. WeÂ’ll endeavor to increase the share of non-fossil fuels and primary energy consumption to around 15 percent by 2020. How does that compare to what the United States and Europe are doing?

ECONOMY: Again, I think this is important, what President Hu Jintao is saying, to have 15 percent of their energy come from nuclear and renewable. But, if the Chinese economy continues to grow at a rate of, you know, eight percent or seven percent per year. Back in 2000, people were predicting that they would double their energy consumption by 2020. Instead, China doubled its energy consumption by 2007.

So, just the sheer rate at which this enormous economy is growing means that even if you have 15 percent of your energy mix coming from renewables, if youÂ’re doubling the size of your economy and your energy along with it, youÂ’re really looking at an enormous increase in the use of fossil fuels.

CURWOOD: LetÂ’s talk about the use of fossil fuels. ThereÂ’s a saying that every week China builds another coal-fired power plant. How accurate is that?

ECONOMY: I think it was true, probably about two years ago; every seven to ten days China was putting online a new coal-fired power plant. It may still be true. I think the important thing to realize is these coal-fired power plants are more efficient than the ones that they are replacing. And so, thatÂ’s a plus, but at the same time, you are seeing an overall increase in the amount of energy consumed, in the energy demand in the country.

CURWOOD: So, letÂ’s circle around back now to Copenhagen. Coming into Copenhagen, handicap for me how well the Chinese will do with what theyÂ’ve put out on offer so far, and how well the US will do, and what might that mean for climate politics going forward?

ECONOMY: You know, my sense is that no country is going to get what it wants. WeÂ’re unlikely to come to any real, global agreement. Optimally, we would see within the US Senate movement suggesting that Waxman-Markey, or some variant thereof, has a very good chance of making it through, and President Obama and his team can be confident that what they bring to Copenhagen is going to be something substantial.

On the Chinese side, you know, optimally theyÂ’re going to move forward from what weÂ’ve heard from President Hu Jintao and actually say as they said in a study that came out in August, yes, letÂ’s set some voluntary targets first, and then letÂ’s set into place some binding targets. So, some kind of time frame, I think, from the Chinese for actual reductions in emissions would be the optimal end result.

CURWOOD: Even if that number isn’t say, ‘til 2030. That China says, well, we’ll keep growing until 2030, that’s when we’ll finally start shrinking.

ECONOMY: I think even if they say we’re going to allow emissions to peak around 2030 and then set firm targets for reduction, I think that gives the rest of the global community a much firmer place from which to – to push the Chinese and from which to negotiate, and I think that’s precisely why the Chinese have not done it.

CURWOOD: Elizabeth Economy is the director of the Asian program at the Counsel on Foreign Relations, and is working on a new book about China. Thank you so much, Elizabeth.

ECONOMY: Thank you.



Click Here to Hear Barack Obama's Speech at the UN

Click Here to Hear Mohamed Naheed's Speech at the UN

Click Here to Hear Ban Ki Moon's Speech at the UN

Click Here to Hear Hu Jintao's Speech at the UN


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