A tough problem to mask

Red alert in Beijing as Paris talks reach decisive moment

smog in tiananmen

Red alert: Beijing issues first ever air pollution alarm this week

The ‘Mandate of Heaven’ is a Chinese concept about the right to rule that dates back many millennia. And worryingly for China’s current leadership when Beijingers looked towards those same heavens this month they didn’t see a lot: throughout much of December the capital’s skies have turned eerily dark as thick blankets of smog descended, leading to school closures and cars being ordered off the road. On Monday the city issued its first ever red alert for air pollution.

The timing of this onset of grey miasma could not have been more germane – it would have been one of the last things President Xi Jinping saw of his country as his plane took off for Paris where he attended global climate change talks (that remain ongoing).

It was almost as if the heavens were reminding Xi of the ancient social contract: rule wisely and you will remain in power; fail to meet the needs of your people and you will be unseated.

In the past natural disasters were a sign that the emperor, or the ‘son of Heaven’, had lost his mandate. But, of course, the smog that descended on Beijing last week was not a natural disaster, at least not entirely.

Weather and geography did play a role in trapping the pollution over Beijing but the high levels of PM2.5 particles – the smallest and most hazardous type – were locally generated from car emissions and coal-fired power plants.

And that’s where there is a strong connection between air pollution and China’s carbon emissions – the latter being the central issue Xi and other world leaders discussed at COP 21 in Paris.

Coal is the dirtiest of the fossil fuels and China – the world’s biggest carbon polluter – relies on it to produce two thirds of its electricity.

It’s no coincidence that the smog returned to Beijing this year when the weather began to get cold and in response power stations fired up to meet demand for heat.

This encapsulates China’s central problem in respect to air pollution and climate change – how does a government carry on improving people’s livelihoods, or keeping them warm in the winter, whilst also reducing the longer term threat of global warming?

Speaking at the COP 21 opening ceremony on November 30 – when PM2.5 hourly levels in Beijing reached 40 times the World Health Organisation’s recommended limit – Xi admitted the past three decades of rapid economic growth had “taken its toll on the [Chinese] environment” but he stressed that China was now taking the issue seriously.

“China is making vigorous ecological endeavours to promote green and low-carbon growth,” he said. “We have the confidence and resolve to fulfill our commitments,” he added.

His tone and indeed his presence marked a change from the Chinese attitude at the last United Nations climate change talks in Copenhagen in 2009. On that occasion China sent Premier Wen Jiabao to negotiate. However, during key meetings he vacated the room leaving Xie Zhenhua, special envoy on climate change, to remonstrate with Western leaders.

The jist of his argument was that developed countries are largely responsible for global warming and international emission caps were another tool to stop China’s economic rise.

The argument was not altogether unreasonable but Xie – who is still China’s main negotiator on climate change – became known as the man who shook his finger at President Obama and China was widely blamed for having sunk the talks.

This time China comes to the table with more confidence and a greater motive to participate and drive change. Just before the talks started the Ministry of Science and Technology put out a report saying China is being affected more than other countries by rising temperatures and sea levels. It said that soil erosion and erratic rainfall will lead to crop failure and a loss of food security. It also warned that the country’s eastern seaboard – its economic powerhouse – would be threatened by rising waters.

Yet aside from all this there are domestic political reasons for why the Chinese government may be keen to get an agreement in Paris.

As The Economist pointed out last week: if 195 nations at COP 21 come together and commit to action that will cap global warming it will help China’s top leaders push through much needed economic reforms – namely, shutting wasteful and polluting steel plants and coal pits so the economy can transition to a more service-based growth.

Just as with joining the World Trade Organisation or the renminbi being included in the International Monetary Fund’s special drawing rights basket, a deal in Paris would strengthen the hand of those pushing for reform because even hardliners don’t want to see China embarrassed on the world stage.

So what is China pushing for at these talks?

Within hours of this week’s WiC being published there should be a final agreement. In the run up to the talks China committed to stopping carbon emissions growth in 2030 and hinted that with help from the West it could bring that date forward to 2026 or 2023.

China can also now lay claim to producing 24% of the world’s renewable energy – a figure that could feasibly rise to 42% in the near future.

In many ways China leads the world in tackling climate change.

But China still sees itself as a developing nation and Xi Jinping made it clear in his opening address at the Paris talks that he believes developed nations should shoulder a greater proportion of the burden when combating climate change.

He also appeared reluctant to accept terms that might limit China’s short term room for manoeuvre. “It is imperative to respect differences among countries, especially developing countries, in domestic policies, capacity building and economic structure. A one-size-fits-all approach must be avoided,” he said

According to reports in the Financial Times this week Chinese representatives have tried to water down proposals for a system that would compel nations to report carbon emissions and climate change plans to the UN – and likewise a clause that would force it to update emission-reduction pledges every five years from 2020.

More broadly China, along with India, looks to be resisting a move to aim for a 1.5 degree (centigrade) cap on global warming by the end of the century – a move introduced by the low-lying island of Tuvalu as well as Bangladesh and supported by the US.

On Wednesday French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius presented the final 29-page draft of the agreement to delegates. Around 750 disputed terms or phrases had been incorporated or removed, he said, and about 250 remained.

After  the report came out the Chinese delegation said it would ‘consult’ with other nations. “Tonight will be a sleepless night,”  Xinhua quoted Xie as saying.

Meanwhile in Beijing the air on Thursday cleared.“The red alert in Beijing has been lifted,” Xinhua announced on its official weibo feed.

That said, Beijing wasn’t the worst hit. Anyang in Henan faced air pollution three times worse, says the New York Times, with the index reaching the top of the scale: 999.

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