Leaders skip UN talks as China looks to go it alone on carbon

Chinese President Xi Jinping and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi will both skip the UN climate talks, but that doesn’t mean the world’s biggest emitters aren’t acting. EPA/AAP

There are a few notable absentees among the more than 120 world leaders gathered in New York for today’s United Nations Climate Summit. Perhaps most notable of all is the head of the world’s highest-emitting nation, China’s President Xi Jinping.

Others who could make a difference have also sent their apologies, including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott. India and Russia are the third- and fourth-largest emitters, respectively, whereas Canada and Australia have some of the world’s highest per capita emissions.

The rollcall of absentees might signal a loss of political confidence in international climate policies, notably those established through UN negotiations.

But that’s not to say that the biggest polluters are doing nothing. In President Xi’s case, it is tempting to conclude that he and his country are forging ahead without waiting for international agreement.

China’s approach

Outside the meeting and across the world, street protests have loudly called for greater efforts by major countries. Leaders who are not attending the summit have met with criticism, even if they have sent senior figures to represent them.

The 2014 meeting is the largest gathering of leaders for UN climate talks since the 2009 Copenhagen conference, which resulted in only a weak political statement and no legally binding commitments for reducing emissions. The Copenhagen conference featured the then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, as well as the then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. This year, the Chinese delegation is led by Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, a less senior figure both than President Xi and than Wen Jiabao’s successor, Premier Li Keqiang.

The day before the summit, President Xi was busy meeting a business delegation from Hong Kong, although that hardly seems like a big enough event to excuse missing a meeting hosted by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and attended by US President Barack Obama. So why won’t he be there?

China is the world’s largest producer of carbon dioxide emissions (in absolute, rather than per capita terms). As such it’s a big contributor to the greenhouse problem. But it’s also emerging as a world leader in solutions to it.

Besides leading the world in renewable energy investment, China now hosts the world’s second-largest carbon trading network, which deals in emissions permits equivalent to 1.1 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide each year spread across several pilot schemes in designated cities and provinces.

China has recently unveiled plans for a national carbon price that would dwarf the European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme by the end of the decade.

But in the meantime China’s existing regional carbon markets, while continuing to reduce domestic emissions, could also form a template for similar regional schemes all around the world.

Emissions trading schemes are already up and running in New Zealand, South Korea, Tokyo, California and the northeastern United States, and the Canadian provinces of British Columbia, Quebec and Alberta. Meanwhile Kazakhstan, Mexico, Brazil, Thailand, Turkey, Ukraine and Chile are all either planning an emissions trading scheme or at least considering the prospect.

Those prospects will be bolstered by the example set by a successful Chinese national carbon trading scheme. For its own part, a national scheme would also ensure that China caps its huge emissions – a key requirement of emissions trading.

Where does this leave the UN?

The absence of China’s most powerful person from the UN summit should not be taken as evidence that China doesn’t want to act on climate change. In fact, China’s recent domestic commitments in emission reduction – including carbon intensity reduction, emissions trading, and low-carbon city initiatives – are quite aggressive given that its economy is still developing.

Rather, it might reflect a loss of political confidence in international climate policy, the most notable example of which is the UN’s Kyoto Protocol. China participated in the protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which aimed to deliver emissions reductions by trading carbon credits around the world. But carbon prices on the CDM market have collapsed, and China will doubtless be mindful of this experience in the future.

The Kyoto Protocol, now in its second commitment period, looks fragile. Several original signatories, including Japan, New Zealand, Canada and Russia, have withdrawn. The World Bank noted that demand for emissions reductions created under the protocol has declined in the face of countries’ weak national commitment to emissions reductions – a prime example being Australia’s decision to repeal its carbon price.

To China, such international mechanisms no longer look very attractive. It faces huge pressures, both domestic and international, to cut its vast carbon emissions – hence the importance of domestic initiatives such as the national emissions trading scheme. Such a “bottom-up” approach could end up making China a global leader in climate actions, because of the country’s huge size and influence as an example to others in this area.

For years, developed countries have been urging China to control its emissions. The only way this will happen is if the Chinese government takes the steps to do it, on a nationwide level. There are clear signs that China’s leadership now has the necessary determination to do it.

All of this is not to say that the United Nations will become irrelevant. International climate change negotiations will still lead the moral discourse. But game-changers may eventually come from the grassroots, rather than from the highest levels.

President Xi does not appear very interested in the UN Climate Summit. That may well be because China is more confident in its own plan at home than the efforts of the international community.