‘A Lot of People Misunderstand China’

Posted on 05 December 2010 by admin

Nastasya Tay interviews RENATE LOK-DESSALLIEN, head of the United Nations Development Programme’s China office

Windmills at Xinjiang, China. Credit: Chris Lim/Wikicommons

Windmills at Xinjiang, China. Credit: Chris Lim/Wikicommons

CANCÚN, Dec 5, 2010 (IPS/TerraViva) – In 2008, China pumped out 6.5 gigatonnes of CO2, roughly equal to the emissions from the rest of Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East combined.

But that’s not the whole story. China’s enormous population means that its per capita emissions are just below five tonnes of CO2 per person – approximately a quarter that of the U.S.

China is also a developing country, and one which feels that it should be afforded space for economic growth as it tries to lift the150 million of its 1.3 billion people who still live in poverty.

In this complex environment, the country is attempting to map out a growth path for the future and negotiate the tension between fuelling economic growth and delivering on green imperatives.

It has invested more in renewable energy than most developed countries, including the United States. It has embarked on an ambitious energy efficiency programme, trying to convince its millions to change their lightbulbs, and has mainstreamed climate change into policy-making across levels of government.

But in the face of its momentous climate change challenges, is it enough?

TerraViva’s Nastasya Tay spoke to Renate Lok-Dessallien, head of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) office in China, which engages heavily with the PRC government on its strategy to deal with climate change, providing financial support and technical assistance on some of its programmes. Excerpts of the interview follow.

Q: China’s gotten a lot of attention for becoming the world’s largest emitter of CO2. Do you think the country’s trying to change perceptions of its climate change agenda?

I think China’s done a lot of work. First of all, she’s internalised the problem, which is more than one can say for some countries.

Formerly, climate change was considered a scientific study, but now it’s absolutely central to the whole development agenda. This has huge significance, because the challenges are so great.

How do you continue to develop a country the size of China – 1.3 billion people – 500 million people taken out of poverty in the last 30 years, and 150 million people remaining in poverty, and expecting that to happen for them in the years ahead. And how do you do that on a low-carbon growth path? It’s never been done before. There’s no models out there.

The second area is the whole area of energy efficiency and conservation, where they’ve set targets. And when China sets targets, they’re serious targets. And they get implemented – even sometimes at the expense of other things. [Other colleagues have said that] China’s even gone to the extent of switching off the electricity for a week.

It may seem a little extreme, but it also indicates the seriousness with which the whole issue of target-setting and target meeting is addressed in China.

Q: The country appears to be taking climate change challenges very seriously. But is it enough?

If you look at it from an absolute emissions reduction perspective, it’s not enough.

Renate Lok-Dessallien, head of the UNDP's China Office. Credit: Nastasya Tay/IPS

Renate Lok-Dessallien, head of the UNDP's China Office. Credit: Nastasya Tay/IPS

China has to do more, but all countries have to do more. And it looks very much like China is taking it seriously, but it’s also waiting for other countries to take it seriously. In particular, the other big emitter countries, which happen to be developed countries.

There’s still a long way to go. They have competing demands on them. And how do you balance the need for development, the need for poverty reduction, with the need emissions reduction?

We have some technology fixes which allow you to both, but on a large scale which would make a big dent in emissions reduction, we don’t yet have a magic bullet. It will be tough sailing for a while until we have that kind of technology. So they’ve recognised that as well, and are investing heavily in innovation and research to develop the technologies.

Q: Do you think it might be possible or desirable to replicate China’s efforts in other developing countries?

A lot depends on the international financing mechanisms that finally, hopefully come to be. It’s not realistic to expect least developed countries to dole out huge proportions of their budgets on this – some proportion yes, obviously, but to the same degree as China, probably not. So there we’re probably dependent on the whole issue of international financing for climate change.

I think that a lot of people misunderstand China, and perhaps have misconceived ideas about how the system actually works.

Government has set serious targets and they’ve actually linked the personal performance assessment system of provincial leaders and some of the large city leaders on meeting some of these targets. That in itself is totally replicable. Why don’t developed countries do that?

It seems like a very responsible way to go about it, and it doesn’t have anything to do with the kind of government that you have. It just means that you’re taking it seriously.

I think getting the incentive system right is the essence of it. If the country as a whole decides that it’s an important priority, then it’s beholden upon whichever government you’re talking about to figure out the mechanisms.

Each country has its own governance system, each country knows how it operates. It doesn’t have to be the same.

I think the performance system is totally replicable. That’s what good governance is all about – getting the incentive system right. Whether it’s climate change, or whatever you’re talking about.

Q: So, what’s next for the country? What are we likely to see in the next few years?

As we move to the 12th Plan period in China, they’re going to be restructuring the economy on multiple fronts.

In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, they realised their economy was over-dependent on an export-led system. Now that there’s a rising middle class in China, they want to migrate the structure towards a more consumption-based system.

At the same time they’re doing that, they’re trying also to feed in a low-carbon growth path and cope with a lot of poverty. They’ve got a lot on their hands, and getting the right balance is going to be a challenge. But they can get the right balance, and they’re certainly moving in that direction. That’ll be a huge inspiration for other countries.

Download the full interview here.

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