How to break the climate change stalemate

By Bruce Au and Thomas Hale (chinadaily.com.cn)
Updated: 2010-11-30 10:59
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From currency wars, to disputes over coastal islands, to security on the Korean peninsula, China's foreign policy increasingly struggles with the question of what China's responsibilities should be. This will also be a major topic at the Cancun climate conference that opened on Monday.

China will face significant pressure to do more, as it did at last year's Copenhagen summit. But like any developing country, China's per capita emissions and GDP per capita are below those of the OECD countries, as are its historical emissions. The reality is that a rising China will inevitably be blamed for any failure to negotiate a global treaty, even if the fault lays elsewhere. Climate diplomacy becomes a gridlock, and part of the problem may be that abstract discussions of responsibilities and ideals have overshadowed a more pragmatic "problem-solving" approach.

The solution, we argue, is to change the very idea of diplomacy itself by expanding it beyond the multilateral talks. We should ask not just what China and other countries' responsibilities are, but what are the responsibilities of our provinces, cities, and towns, and also companies, social organizations, and even individuals. A "UN+" solution would bring this wider range of sub- and non-state actors into the battle against climate change.

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Indeed, if we look beyond the deadlocked negotiations to more "bottom up" actions, we can be much more optimistic. For example, the United States has failed to take aggressive actions at the national level, and, following the recent electoral gains of the Republican Party, is unlikely to do so in the near future. However, 17 US states and 684 cities have voluntarily committed to reduce emissions. These local governments make up 53 percent of the US population and 43 percent of its emissions, an amount equivalent to Japan and Germany's emissions combined.

Numerous companies are also taking actions, not least those in the banking and insurance sectors. Following an increase in the risk of Atlantic hurricanes, the insurance company CIGNA stopped signing contracts in Southern Florida. The world's largest reinsurance group Swiss Re is also prepared to terminate the liability insurance contracts with clients who have not developed adequate climate contingency plans. Also, a group of 534 institutional investors with US$64 trillion assets under management has succeeded in getting 2,000 major companies to disclose their climate policies and emissions through the Carbon Disclosure Project.

While there has been an explosion of bottom-up initiatives, they have to grow significantly to meet the challenge of climate change. China's low-carbon initiatives in five provinces, two direct-controlled municipalities, and six cities is already a step in the right direction, framing it within a package of concrete bottom up solutions will help China stay one step ahead in the chess of global climate diplomacy.

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