Hu Angang and China’s climate change policy

Author: Peter Yuan Cai, ANU

China has been criticised in some quarters as the party-spoiler at last year’s Copenhagen Climate Change Summit. Its steadfast refusal to allow international monitoring of its emission level led to a collapse in reaching a meaningful international agreement. The earlier euphoria over China’s far-reaching announcement on emission reduction targets had all but disappeared. It seems that many commentators believe that China is pursuing an economic development strategy at all costs.

But there are also voices emanating from China that strongly urge Beijing to take this historic opportunity to tackle the challenge of climate change and assert China’s global leadership in green and renewable technologies. One of the leading voices from the chorus is Hu Angang of Tsinghua University. He is one of China’s most respected and cited economists and an influential author of series of books and reports that seek to provide policy remedies to address many of China’s problems on its long march to be great again.

In his latest book on ‘China confronting global climate change’, Hu argued for an innovative solution to deal with China’s dilemma in meeting the challenge of climate change.

How does China reconcile the seemingly conflicting objectives of emissions reduction, industrialisation, and economic development?

Given that China is not only the world’s largest energy producer but also the largest emitter of anthropogenic global warming-inducing carbon dioxide, China must assume the grave responsibility of tackling the challenge of climate. Despite the glittering modern façade of mega-metropolises such as Beijing and Shanghai, and the mind-boggling statistics of China’s economic achievement, it is still a developing country with a vast swathe of hinterland yet to be touched by industrialisation.

In addition, China has a very fragile environment that is burdened with an enormous population.  It is a main victim of climate change-induced natural disasters such as floods. Therefore, China must actively seek an international solution to this problem. On the other hand, the current of domestic opinion in China has yet to reach a consensus on conflicting aims between growth and climate change. Many still see the key role of the state as delivering economic growth and reducing poverty.

Hu Angang proposes an emission reduction scheme that is applicable internationally as well as domestically to China based on the principles of fairness and efficiency. He challenges the traditional dichotomy of developed countries versus developing countries in climate change debate with four new divisions based on the Human Development Index, HDI.  He argues that major emitters including the United States and China should bear the brunt of responsibility for emission reduction.

In his work, he points out that as of 2006, there were 70 countries with 1.6 billion people in the first division with high HDI representing 25.5 per cent of world’s population. They are the main group responsible for emission reduction and, he argues, it should be mandatory for them to devise a unified, multilateral plan to achieve that goal.

Of the top twenty emitters in the world, 14 emitters belong to the first division of high HDI, and their reductions should be made mandatory.  There are 5 other countries belonging to the second division of medium to high HDI, and they should be subject to conditional emission reductions. Of all top twenty emitters, only India belongs to the third division of medium HDI, and it should be encouraged to actively pursue an emission reduction strategy.

Such divisions are not carved in stone and are subject to change as countries move up the ladder to a higher division of HDI. For example, once a country moves from second division to the first division, its emission reduction effort becomes no longer conditional but mandatory.

Different regions and provinces of China are also divided into four divisions according to HDI. For example, the major urban centres such as Beijing and Shanghai along with the prosperous coast provinces, with high HDI, belong to the first division. The rest of country is categorised according to the level of their HDI achievement.

Hu Angang’s plan to link emission reduction to HDI is an alternative way to bridge the old divide between the developed and developing countries in the debate over the respective responsibility for climate change. The additional principles of inclusion of major emitters in any global emission reduction framework would also ensure that major emitters from the developing world would shoulder a fair share of their responsibility depending on their available resources.

We ought to pay more attention to voices from China on the issue of climate change, especially from someone as distinguished and influential as Hu Angang.