Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 10 November 2008

Obama, climate change and China

The world is placing its hopes that Barrack Obama will take strong actions on climate change when he becomes the US President.  Last week the Chinese premier at a workshop in Beijing called for technology transfer to developing countries.


One of the major issues that the new President elect of the United States, Barrack Obama, will have to address soon is his country’s policies on climate change.

For many years, the US has been considered a “climate skeptic” because it opted out of the Kyoto Protocol and moreover President George W. Bush for most of his two terms seemed to deny that climate change was even a problem.

Both Obama and his rival John McCain in their presidential campaigns made climate change one of their priorities.

Hopes therefore abound that Obama will now change the US position by setting ambitious national targets to cut Greenhouse Gas emissions, while engaging seriously in the international negotiations.

His victory comes not a moment too soon, as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is in the middle of talks to decide on a post-2012 arrangement.

So far the US has been dragging its feet at the talks.  Other countries have been waiting for a new President to show more commitment.

The developing countries are especially waiting to see if the developed countries can get their act together to pledge support to transfer funds and climate-friendly technology to them.

Last week, a conference was held in Beijing to examine the state of technology development and transfer in the climate change process. 

China’s Prime Minister Mr. Wen Jiabao who opened the meeting said that no progress has been made on the transfer of climate-friendly technologies and an international mechanism should be set up to ensure timely access of developing countries to these technologies.

A thousand people, including Ministers and officials of 70 countries attended the workshop, organized by the Chinese government and the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs. 

Wen said progress has been made in developing new and renewable energy technologies and new breakthroughs are imminent in other technologies.

But regrettably, no progress has been made in the global sharing of the climate change technologies, said the premier.  An international system should be set up to ensure that developing countries can have access to advanced emission-reduction technologies.    

Wen said that climate change is both an environmental and a development issue. Climate change should not be addressed at the cost of development, nor should economic growth be blindly pursued with disregard to climate change threats.

Climate change is mainly caused by the accumulated emissions of developed countries, so it is unfair for developing countries to bear the consequences, he said.  The developed countries should change their unsustainable consumption mode, reduce emissions and help developing countries embark on a sustainable development path.

The prime minister also gave details of China’s measures, including a national climate change programme, a target to reduce energy intensity per unit of GDP by 20% in five years, and development of clean and renewable energy.

He added that developed countries encountered their environmental challenges in phases over 200 years of industrialization, “but we are confronted with the challenges all at the same time.

“In addition we have to address in a much shorter timeframe the issue of energy conservation and pollution control which has taken developed countries decades to tackle after their economies became highly developed.  The difficulties we face are therefore unprecedented.” 

UN Under-Secretary Mr. Sha Zukang, speaking on technology transfer, said the tough issues remained: who should transfer what, to whom and at what price?

On barriers to technology transfer, Sha said energy services from climate-friendly technologies are too costly for developing countries.  There are also differing views on whether the global intellectual property rights regime is a barrier.

While the rationale for IPRs is to promote innovation, “it may be legitimate to ask, has the pendulum swung too far, from protection to protectionism.”

There was a clash at the opening session, when Denmark’s Environment Minister implied that some developing countries should be obliged to do more to cut emissions..

“Emerging economies like China must also step up their efforts as most emission increases in future will come from developing countries, she said.  “Mali is not China and Somalia is not Saudi Arabia.”

This earned a sharp attack from South Africa’s Environment Minister, who referred to  the Danish Minister’s “admonishment” of developing countries and apparent attempt to create new categories of developing countries.

He said the developing countries said a “resounding No” to the proposal, and there should be no new sub categorization of developing countries.