Northeast Asia on the Path to Copenhagen | Wilson Center

Northeast Asia on the Path to Copenhagen

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Webcast Recap

On November 17, the Asia Program and the China Environment Forum hosted a two-panel event on how nations in northeast Asia are preparing for the United Nations Conference on Climate Change to take place in Copenhagen this December.

Panel One: China's Green Revolution

Jennifer Morgan, climate and energy program director at the World Resources Institute, discussed why it is necessary to have a global climate agreement. A global agreement, Morgan argued, creates a high trust environment, which encourages individual countries to set and coordinate greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction targets. The key element in promoting international cooperation after targets are set will be ensuring that the emissions from each individual nation are measurable, reportable, and verifiable (MRV). This issue, Morgan stressed, will be at the core of the Copenhagen agreements. The Chinese government's concerns about energy security and the effects of climate change have catalyzed policies that are significantly lowering China's energy intensity and rate of GHG growth. However, it remains unclear if China has the ability to carry out MRV for its carbon dioxide emissions.

In addition to MRV issues, there are some sticking points to China fully committing to significant emissions reductions. Taiya M. Smith, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, gave an overview of these points and the internal motivations shaping China's stance vis-à-vis Copenhagen. China's leaders are facing the challenge of how to maintain economic growth while avoiding catastrophic impacts of climate change. Much like the U.S., China is primarily concerned with jobs and the economy, and as such, will continue to use high-carbon activities—heavy industry production and massive coal use—to promote economic growth. At the same time, China has enacted significant carbon reduction measures—mainly in energy efficiency and renewable energy—that have economic co-benefits. The potential for further reductions is great and China is on the path to meet and even exceed substantial emission reduction goals. Nevertheless, China's emissions are the largest in the world and are expected to grow along with its economy; figuring out how to reduce carbon emissions while maintaining economic growth will be the crux of Chinese climate policy.

These goals are not always contradictory as Matt Lewis, communications director for ClimateWorks, demonstrated in his overview of China's explosion of low-carbon industries like wind turbine and solar panel manufacturing. With a mini-documentary on wind power he recently produced, Lewis provided insights into the dynamism of green energy production in China. China's aggressive entry into the production of the solar and wind power sectors and its massive production capacity has meant, for example, that the price of solar panels has fallen 50 percent. This has made China a key player in green energy production globally. Regardless of what happens in Copenhagen, it is clear that China will be integral in both the upcoming Copenhagen agreements and the future global low-carbon economy.

Panel Two: Korea, Japan and Taiwan

Hoesung Lee, vice-chair of United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and dean of Keimyung University, outlined Korea's newly aggressive climate change policy. One day before the event, the Korean government set its climate change targets at -4 percent of 2005 levels by 2020. Proposals to achieve this objective entail a greater emphasis on energy efficiency, transport improvement and renewable energy. There are plans for more hybrid cars and a greater reliance on biofuels. Nuclear power will make up a greater degree of Korea's energy profile rising from 24 percent of energy use today to 41 percent in 2030. Korea will also monitor its emissions using air, ship, and satellite-based observation systems.

Yves Tiberghien, associate professor at the University of British Columbia explained that environmental policy in Japan has usually been the product of structural relationships linking industry, the Ministry of External Trade and Industry, and a public opinion reluctant to face big taxes or costs. However, the recent victory of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) has changed significantly the political discourse on climate change. Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio pledged to cut greenhouse emissions by 25 percent of 1990 levels. The prime minister has also announced that he will tie Japanese aid to environmentally friendly projects, a proposal labeled the "Hatoyama Initiative." Yet, some of the DPJ's campaign promises, such as the elimination of road tolls on the nation's expressways, are clearly not in line with the environmental agenda, and there is little sign that the new government has properly considered the necessary policies to implement its objectives. Tiberghien sees Hatoyama's ambitious greenhouse gas reduction goal as indicative that nongovernmental organizations have played a significant role in the policy process by forming links with individual politicians.

Chi-Jen Yang, research scientist at the Center for Global Change at Duke University, explained that for Taiwan, the issue of climate change is also an issue of sovereignty. Recognition in the climate change regime would enhance the recognition of the island's status in the international community. Taiwan is party neither to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) nor to the Kyoto Protocol. The wording of the UNFCCC excluded Taiwanese participation; although it allowed Switzerland—like Taiwan, a non-U.N. member at the time—to formally accede to the convention. For Taiwan, the language used in international agreements is a vital issue. Other international agreements are worded in a way that allows Taiwanese participation in international regimes, when such participation is deemed necessary or worthy. Warming ties between Taipei and Beijing have also given the former new hope that it will be allowed a place at the climate change table. The Taiwanese government has thus focused on implementing climate change policy as a way of showing the world that Taiwan is a responsible international citizen and increasing the island's diplomatic space.

Drafted by Peter Marsters and Bryce Wakefield.