Holdren’s high hopes for China

by Bryan Walker on August 15, 2009

Holdren.jpgPhysicist John Holdren is President Obama’s chief science advisor and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.  Interviewed recently for Yale’s Environment 360 by Elizabeth Kolbert, he stuck to the theme that the administration plans to convert the U.S. “from the laggard that it has been in this domain” into “the leader that the world needs” on global warming. In a lengthy interview his comments on China struck me as particularly significant at this stage of international discussions.  He has recently visited China with Todd Stern, the Secretary of State’s Special Envoy on Climate Change. Kolbert asked him to speak about what he heard from the Chinese and what he thought the U.S. can do to persuade countries like China and India to agree to some action that will be politically palatable at the Copenhagen conference.
He said two things came through clearly in China. 

One is that the Chinese understand that climate change is real, they understand it’s already harming China, and they understand that it cannot be solved without China’s participation. There’s absolutely no disagreement on that from the Chinese leadership.

I think it’s particularly significant that the Chinese have understood that climate change is already harming them, that this not a problem just for the future. The monsoons have been changing in China in a pattern that the Chinese climate models themselves attribute to global climate change. That change in monsoon has been accentuating flooding in the south, and drought in the north to the detriment of Chinese food production, with considerable property losses.

So the Chinese are starting from a place now which is quite different than they were, say, five years ago. Which is, that this is a problem that China has to participate in solving, for reasons of China’s own self interest. This isn’t a matter of being an altruist, or being a good citizen globally. Their self interest is in solving this problem. That’s a big change.

It has for some time been inconceivable that China (and India) is unaware of what they will suffer under climate change, but in the war of words over relative responsibilities and the accompanying media commentary they can sometimes be presented as neither knowing nor caring.  Holdren’s perception is unsurprising but welcome. Welcome too his recognition that they are already working on the issue: 

The second thing is that I would say the Chinese are already doing far more to try to contribute to the solution than they generally get credit for in the West. The Chinese have made enormous advances in energy end use efficiency in recent years. They are the world leaders, both in the pace of improvement in energy efficiency and the pace of deployment of renewable energy technologies.

In their five-year plan that will end in 2010, they had a target of reducing the energy intensity of the Chinese economy by 20 percent. They’re going to make it, which is an extraordinary rate of improvement in energy efficiency.

There’s widespread recognition that the US and China are the key players in the movement towards a new global agreement at Copenhagen. Holdren identifies the central factor, and at the same time accepts the legitimacy of some of the Chinese claims:

The real question is whether the Chinese will agree in Copenhagen to commitments that are seen as sufficiently rigorous and that the U.S. Senate will then agree to consent to ratification of whatever global agreement gets reached in Copenhagen. If the Chinese are not willing to make a formal commitment to continuation of the sort of progress that they’ve been making, then the Senate is likely to say, “Look, the United States is not going to take on these binding commitments if the Chinese are not going to follow.”

And there is a bit of a chicken and egg problem there, because the Chinese position, I think quite understandably, is that the United States and the other industrialized nations — having contributed the most to this problem up until now — need to lead. The developing countries then can be expected to follow. The Chinese and other developing countries are also saying, “And by the way, you shouldn’t just lead, but you need to help us follow, because you have more technological resources, more capability, a much higher per capita income. So we want both your leadership, and we want your help.”

I think that it’s going to be very important that the United States make clear, between now and Copenhagen, that we are, in fact, willing to lead and to help.

In terms of leading he considers the best thing that could happen between now and Copenhagen is that the Senate pass the energy and climate legislation (and he’s hopeful on that).  In terms of helping he points to the possibility of getting some substantial clean energy projects going on the ground that are jointly supported by the two countries and refers to Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu’s recent visit to China which resulted in agreement with the Chinese on joint energy research centres between the two countries. 

How important is it, asked Kolbert, that something come out of Copenhagen in December that can get through the U.S. Senate?

Holdren replied that we need the global emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping pollutants to level off by about 2020 and be declining sharply after that.

And if that is so — and I believe that’s what the science is telling us — then we really have to have in place across the industrialized world the agreements and the measures that are going to enable us to peak no later than 2015 and start to decline. We need those things in place no later than about 2012. And if you want those things to be in place no  later than 2012, we really should get it done in Copenhagen. That’s the schedule.

I’m not saying it’s the end of the world if we don’t get it done in Copenhagen, but it becomes harder and harder to get on the sort of trajectory we need to be on to reduce the chance of the worst happening in climate change the longer we delay.

The interview covered a variety of other climate change topics. I found it reassuring. It is all too apparent that the administration has to battle against some very dark forces on the American political scene, and it is by no means yet clear to what extent they will prevail. But the intellectual authority and calm good sense of figures like Holdren and the knowledge that they have been given significant status in the administration is hopefully an augury of reasonable success.

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cindy August 17, 2009 at 7:51 pm

Perhaps Holdren should come to Bonn and watch first hand as the US delegation, led by former WRI head Jonathan Pershing, systematically tries to take down the multilateral system set up by the UNFCCC and to get everyone to adopt a weak, bottom-up approach that will have no hope in hell of keeping temperature rise to below two degrees (the temperature threshold agreed by the G8).

thanks to the US the developed country aggregate target currently stands at 10-16%. That’s hardly going to see emissions peaking by 2015.

It would be nice if the likes of Holdren were running the climate policy in the US. But he’s not. It’s the likes of Larry Summers who ran the G8 fiasco.

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