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China's White Paper on the Really Big Crisis

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Fischer, Doris
The Current Column (2008)

Bonn: German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE) (The current column of November 3, 2008)

Bonn, November 3, 2008. Last Tuesday, at a time when everyone was just talking about the global financial crisis, the Chinese government published a “White Paper on China's Politics and Actions against Climate Change” and apparently wanted to send out a signal. In the past, the Chinese government has published a wide variety of white papers on human rights, the Tibet issue, gender equality, defense, etc., and thus above all signaled a government position on the respective issues to the outside world.

The White Paper on Chinese Climate Policy follows the “National Action Plan on Climate Change” adopted last year, which emphasizes that the White Paper is more of a foreign policy document. First and foremost, the White Paper provides a summary of the threats China is facing from climate change, as well as a list of what China has done in the past with regard to climate change and what is being worked on to mitigate climate change and adapt to contribute to climate change. This list is impressive. It clearly documents the determination of the Chinese government not to stand idly by as climate change occurs. One could almost get the impression that with so much political action and will, the task is already well prepared. According to the White Paper, only money and technology from the industrialized countries are still missing in order to be able to counter climate change really successfully.

And this is precisely where the weaknesses of the White Paper become apparent: despite its length, too much remains unsaid. The White Paper does not address the fact that China is already the largest CO2- The world's emitter is that the CO2Emissions have risen above average in recent years and the per capita emissions are already above the amount of 2 tons per year The proposal favored by Chancellor Merkel would result in a fair global per capita distribution of emissions. Instead, the White Paper emphasizes the need for China to develop further and that this will only be possible on the basis of a primary energy mix that is largely based (around 70 percent) on coal. It remains completely unclear how the self-set goals for CO2-Emissions, energy intensity of production, etc. should be complied with. At least in the last few years this has not been successful.

The causes for this are certainly diverse, but they are related to another problem about which the White Paper is silent: the implementation of political goals and legal requirements in everyday life. It is simply not the case that successful environmental policy and climate protection can be implemented in the blink of an eye simply through access to the appropriate technology. Technologies have to be adapted to local conditions, but above all they have to be used. For individual consumers, producers and often even government officials, environmental and climate protection initially mean costs, while the resulting benefits benefit the community and the entire world. Meaningful incentive structures, know-how and a functioning legal system are therefore required in order to guarantee the use of existing (more) climate-friendly technologies. We have heard too often from China that rules are not being implemented and that existing environmental technologies are not being used.

It is therefore politically understandable when the Chinese government, at a press conference to present the White Paper, demands that the industrialized countries spend 1 percent of their gross domestic product to provide developing countries with technology for climate protection and adaptation to climate change . To give the impression that this alone is enough to meet the challenge, because all other efforts have already been tried, is misleading, especially against the background of the Chinese experience.

So what is the real message of the White Paper? Does China want to be an ambitious partner in the effort to avert radical climate change? Apparently not, because the preface says that the most important task for China is to adapt to climate change. Does China have a development policy vision of how growth, environmental protection and climate friendliness can be combined, an idea of ​​how a "low carbon economy“What could the future look like? Unfortunately not, at least in the White Paper one has come to terms with a coal-dominated industrialization, urbanization and modernization path. The actual message of the White Paper is positioning itself in the international climate negotiations: China wants to speak for the developing countries, sees the industrialized countries as being primarily responsible for climate policy and calls for money and technology transfers for themselves and the developing countries. Unfortunately, this is anything but a new message.

Should we react to this with indignation, glee or a new wave of criticism from China? No. First and foremost, we should regret that the White Paper is not more innovative. In the context of the financial crisis, the importance of China in global issues has become all too clear. The hope that China, with its high growth rates and foreign exchange reserves, could somehow help avert the worst is being seriously debated. How much more urgently do we need China to avert the climate catastrophe! We should therefore not take the White Paper too seriously, despite all our disappointment. Fortunately, it's just a political sign. It's not the end of the flagpole. Because in this case the political punctuation is clearly lagging behind the debate in China. The Chinese media have also responded to the publication with critical questions, wanting to know how the environmental and climate policy objectives that are repeated in the White Paper fit together with reality. In China too, people are thinking about what a future “climate-compatible” society should look like and what technologies are needed for this. This is where we should start: The industrialized countries obviously do not have sufficient technologies and social models that would enable a climate-friendly life for everyone in the world. Working together on solutions, on social, economic and technological innovations that enable us to make the lives of all people in the world possible and bearable in the medium and long term seems to be far more important than the transfer of existing technology.

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