George Monbiot on China and climate change

Feature Story - 2009-10-26
China would be a lot more proactive on climate change if the West stepped up and took their share of the burden, British journalist and environmentalist George Monbiot tells Greenpeace China.

Environmental activist and journalist, George Monbiot, talks to Greenpeace China about China and climate change.

With just over a month to go before key UN talks on climate change at Copenhagen, Greenpeace China invited the outspoken Monbiot to give his opinion on China's role at that summit.

Greenpeace:  For an effective climate change-stopping deal at Copenhagen, what do you believe China needs to commit to?

Monbiot: It must become part of a global system of binding emissions caps. But this needs to be done fairly: it would be quite wrong for China to carry the entire burden of the West's outsourced emissions. When goods are manufactured in China then bought in other countries, I believe that the greenhouse gases produced in their manufacture should be divided equally between the two trading partners. This would be fair and it would help China to commit to a cap on emissions without compromising the development of its people.

Greenpeace: What do you think Beijing is likely to agree to?

Monbiot: I don't have any special knowledge of Chinese policy, but judging by what I have read in the media, it seems that the Chinese government is prepared to negotiate as long as it sees the rich nations carrying their share of the burden.

Greenpeace:  Around 70% of China's energy needs are met by coal-fueled power stations. What can China reasonably be expected to do to reduce this and by how much by say, 2020?

Monbiot: China's coal burning is one of the world's most pressing climate threats. There are three means by which the emissions from these plants might be addressed:

a. An overall reduction in electricity production. This is unlikely to be possible in a country growing as fast as China is.

b. A substitution of energy sources. I know that China is installing a great deal of renewable power capacity. The key question is whether this supplements or substitutes for coal-fired power production. If it merely adds to electricity production without leading to the closure of any coal plants, it will do nothing to address the problem.

c. Carbon capture and storage (CCS). Time is very short. If this is to be part of the solution, it has to happen right away. The question is whether the existing coal-burning plants are able to be retrofitted with capture and storage equipment. If not, is the government prepared to replace them with plants whose emissions can be removed?

[Greenpeace response: CCS is unproven, risky and expensive and investing in it threatens to undermine the range of clean energy solutions which are available right now.]

Greenpeace: What can China do to persuade its growing middle class not to have the same environmentally-damaging aspirations as the West - eg. multi-car ownership, international travel, a house stocked with the latest electronic gadgets?

Monbiot: It's very hard, especially as the West has made no serious moves in this direction. If our governments had demonstrated that they were serious about this, China might be more inclined to follow suit. But we are in a very weak position when it comes to lecturing other countries about how much they should consume. If the Chinese people do achieve a level of resource consumption similar to ours, however, many of the world's natural systems will collapse. The impacts on the climate and natural resources will be much greater than they are today.

Greenpeace:  What should the industrialised world reasonably be expected to offer China to help reduce its greenhouse gas emissions growth?

Monbiot: First we must offer to meet China halfway on outsourced emissions. Then we should start to discuss measures to compensate China for development foregone.