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“China’s interests must come first”


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Until recently, Yu Qingtai was Beijing’s top climate negotiator. In a speech earlier this month, Yu argued that the developing world must continue to resist unfair demands from rich countries. Here, chinadialogue publishes a summary of his remarks.

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On August 6, Yu Qingtai – until recently China’s special representative for climate change negotiations – made a speech at Peking University’s School of International Studies, in which he discussed the history and future prospects of climate-change negotiations. According to Yu, China played a decisive role at December’s global-warming summit in Copenhagen. He also said that, as all are born equal, China cannot commit to doing more than its historical responsibilities require and, during negotiations, it must put its own national interests first. This is a summary of his speech.

At the United Nations climate-change conference in Bali in 2007, a series of resolutions – collectively known as the Bali Roadmap – launched a two year negotiation process. The crux of the negotiations throughout has been whether or not to maintain the principle of nations having “common but differentiated responsibilities”.

During negotiations, developed nations have done all they can to water down, reinterpret or refute this principle. Those developed nations are the cause of climate change as they have been releasing greenhouse gases for a long time, and the law dictates that they have a duty to cut emissions first and to provide the funds and technology for developing nations’ own emission cuts. While developed countries have made some efforts in this regard, they have done nowhere near as much as they claim.

The global financial crisis sent the developed world into recession. The cost of energy-saving and emissions-reduction measures has increased; the business and economic sectors have become increasingly opposed to the process; and attempts have been made to offload the problem onto developing nations – requiring them to make commitments that far exceeded both their historical responsibilities and their actual capabilities. This would sacrifice the interests of developing countries in order to maintain and further advance the developed world’s lead. Developing nations meanwhile naturally resist what they see as selfish and unreasonable demands.

Prior to Copenhagen, some rich nations came to believe compromise from major developing nations would bring other countries into line – and so they turned their attention to China. They hoped to achieve a breakthrough with the biggest greenhouse-gas emitter among developing nations, and to put pressure on China and India to do more.

The Copenhagen talks, in essence, were a continuation of the struggle over “common but differentiated responsibilities”. Developing nations ultimately withstood huge pressure from their developed counterparts, defended their own right to develop and achieved a positive, albeit intermediate, outcome from the conference.

I believe that the Chinese government remained positive and calm in the face of enormous pressure. First, by announcing programmes and targets for the coming decade prior to the talks, the government continued to show the world that China is a responsible nation. Those plans were unconditional, as we do not believe that the future of mankind should be used as a bargaining chip – a position that contrasts sharply with the stance of developed nations.

Second, the Chinese government made no concessions on the country’s right to develop. The European Union said that China’s emissions targets were actually set at levels that would be reached anyway and were equivalent to doing nothing. They did not consider that their proposed 30% cuts have a long list of conditions attached, yet when we aim to cut carbon-intensity by 40% they say we are doing nothing. Premier Wen Jiabao made it clear that China’s targets had been carefully determined and were not open to negotiation, firmly rebuffing developed-nation demands.

Third, the Copenhagen talks did not collapse. China made an active, important and decisive input. Wen Jiabao engaged in three days of constant diplomacy, telling all sides that the Copenhagen talks had reached a crucial stage – that it was necessary to seek common ground but accept differences, to bridge divides and to form a consensus on which to found future cooperation. Towards the end of the conference, as Wen was about to leave for the airport, he decided to stay for a final attempt at an agreement. He urgently contacted the heads of state of Brazil, India and South Africa, some of whom had to turn back from the airport. Five nations [including the United States] gathered…and got down to discussing the core problems.

The talks focused on two issues. One was long term goals. As disagreement over atmospheric carbon-dioxide concentrations and 2050 emissions targets was too great, these were not covered in the agreement, which specified only a goal of limiting any temperature increase to two degrees Celsius [above pre-industrial levels].

Second was the issue of “measurable, reportable and verifiable” cuts. Developed nations wanted to expand verification to every aspect of developing nations’ economies, including development plans and carbon pathways. What right do they have, I ask? These are plans that we will implement based on our own capabilities – what qualifies them to verify them? Who has given them this right? In the end a compromise – “international consultations and analysis” – was reached. China will report the measures it takes to the international community, and the international community is welcome to discuss them.

Copenhagen triggered some fierce reactions in Europe – one of the reasons being that, despite their leading role in the response to climate change and promotion of the Copenhagen meeting, the European leaders were marginalised on the crucial issues. They were unhappy that, at the critical moment, they had not played their rightful role.

I personally feel that, after Copenhagen, all parties adopted a more peaceful, pragmatic and rational attitude. No longer was there manipulation of the kind seen in the lead up to Copenhagen, when expectations were raised and a single international conference was presented as something that would determine the fate of humanity.

If expectations are lowered, there is a greater possibility of achieving what is expected. If we get a result, great, but if we haven’t finished negotiating, then there is still the South Africa summit next year. In this situation, strategies may change. For example, dialogue and communication may replace the constant pressure on major developing nations to compromise and back down. But there are some things that will not change:

1. The search for cooperation. Although disagreements and conflicts of interests will remain with us in the long term, the global nature of the climate-change issue requires global cooperation. All parties need to seek a basic level of consensus as the foundation for that cooperation. This will not be abandoned.

2. The main disagreements are still over “common but differentiated responsibilities”, and this is particularly apparent when cooperation is actually happening. Developed nations will continue to attempt to pass on their responsibilities, and developing nations will continue to resist.

3. Developing nations will continue to defend their development rights and opportunities. They are not willing to combat climate change if the price is continued poverty

Overall, the post-Copenhagen era will be one where consensus and disagreement, cooperation and conflict, coexist. This will remain the case in the long term.

During my three years working on climate change, I have reached some personal conclusions. Concern about climate change and China’s role must be seen against the background of China’s economic and social development. China’s national circumstances cannot be ignored. China is bound to be dependent on coal for energy – we cannot afford oil as an alternative when it costs more than US$100 dollars (680 yuan) a barrel. We have factors limiting our development, and the price and opportunity costs of energy saving and emissions reduction must be taken into account and stable development continued. Many problems can only be solved through development. 

We cannot blindly accept that protecting the climate is humanity’s common interest – national interests should come first. Individual enthusiasm and willingness to make sacrifice for the sake of the climate is worthy of respect and praise. I myself usually walk or take the bus to work. The individual can choose not to drive, but China cannot choose not to have an automobile industry. The individual can save power, but there are 600 million people in India without electricity – the country has to develop and meet that need. And if that increases emissions, I say, “So what?” The people have a right to a better life.

I once pointed out to an academic from a developed nation that the emissions resulting from their country’s two-car households had been accumulating in the atmosphere for decades. Many Chinese households have only just purchased their first car and they tell us we should ride bikes? It doesn’t make sense. We want to develop the economy until everyone has the option of buying a vehicle, but at the same time use taxation and subsidies to encourage the purchase of low-emission vehicles and the use of public transport.

When it comes to greenhouse-gas emissions, we cannot only look at the current situation and ignore history, nor look at overall emissions and ignore per capita figures. China’s accumulated emissions account for only 7% of the global total. Emissions are caused by consumption of energy, and this is the foundation of social development. As a Chinese person, I cannot accept someone from a developed nation having more right than me to consume energy. We are all created equal – this is no empty slogan. The Americans have no right to tell the Chinese that they can only consume 20% as much energy. We do not want to pollute as they did, but we have the right to pursue a better life.

The public relations efforts of developed nations on climate change are always more effective than ours, but it is more important to look at their actual actions. Overall, when you look at the facts, there is a huge difference between what is said and what is done.

Some EU nations have done well on emissions reductions, but the United States, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Spain and Italy have not just failed to make cuts – they have significantly increased their emissions. And they do not seem to feel they have done anything wrong.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has been in place for almost two decades, and it has achieved next to nothing. Traditional development aid has been repackaged as aid for climate change. Transfers of technology have not been effectively carried out, with some developed nations even hoping to use the technology they control to turn a profit.

Some ask why China cannot do more public relations work. I think there is a cultural difference here, a characteristic of the nation: we would rather get actual work done than make boastful statements. 

Yu Qingtai was appointed China’s special representative for climate change negotiations in 2007, when he was serving as ambassador to Tanzania. He attended the Bali, Poznan and Copenhagen conferences, as well as many other climate-change negotiations. He was recently appointed ambassador to the Czech Republic.

Homepage image from Adopt a Negotiator/Fontane Lau

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eye opening stuff

wow this is a great article, i've never read the chinese position on climate change so clearly put in one article like this.

i think mr yu makes some really valid points. i would say his one major flaw is in saying "what right do they have to measure/report/verify what's going on in our country?"

listen, if it's in the copenhagen accord to limit to 2 degrees C increase, then the scientists will decide how much more carbon can be released safely and therefore how much we need to reduce emissions. if we can't measure what china is emitting (>20% of emissions now), then we won't be able to know if we are going to keep the temperature within 2 C rise. why not make this MRV transparent so China can see exactly what EU/US is doing and EU/US can see exactly what China is doing? I actually don't understand how this infringes on the sovereign rights of China as a nation. If China is so confident in its actions (and I know so humble, don't make boastful statements blah blah blah), then why not welcome foreign countries to measure and make sure. Or should we just trust you?

Well I guess its every country for themselves then. Humanity as a whole? Apparently, that's not a concern for China.






Beyond "national interest"

The urgency of the present situation renders the issue of historical responsibility irrelevant. We need to move beyond the blame-game.

It is short-sighted to see tackling climate change as a hindrance to China's "national interest". Sustainable development and reduction in emissions is preceisely in the national interest of not just China, but all "developing" and "developed" countries. Indeed, developing countries like Bangladesh are those among the most vulnerable to the effects wrought by climate change.

So yes, no qualms with the "right to a better life". But this "better life" is a fantasy if emissions are not reduced.

I don't want to live in a world where everyone in China owns a car.


于先生这样的言论和态度,在其他的官员的公开讲话中经常见到,不足为怪。只是这次他是在北京大学说的这番话,好在北大有兼容并包,自由精神和独立人格的传统。我为中国人之“发展权问题:人生而平等”的态度,对“对于温室气体排放,不能只看当前不看历史、不能只看总体不看人均”的说法感到耻辱,这与中国的历史人文精神传统相去甚远。大气层不知道历史和当前,总体和人均排放,大气层只知道排放到达何种程度回发生什么变化,不可逆转的变化。 王健

I cannot agree

The sorts of views and attitude expressed by Mr. Yu here are unsurprising and they frequently crop up other public speeches by officials. It's just that this particular speech was given at Peking University, where they have a tradition of all-inclusivity, intellectual freedom and independence. I’m embarrassed by Chinese people's "rights to develope: we are created equal" attitude and by the justification that "When it comes to greenhouse-gas emissions, we cannot simply look at the current situation and ignore history, nor look at overall emissions and ignore per capita figures." Such sentiments are completely at odds with the spirit of China’s history and culture. As far as the atmosphere is concerned there is no present and past, no overall emissions and per-capita figures; what matters as far as the atmosphere is concerned is what will happen when emissions reach a certain level: change that is irreversible.
Wang Jian




如果中国稍微多卖出一些美国国券并缩减军事预算/ 核武库,就就足够确保有关污染的立法(包括在燃煤发电厂方面)被执行,并将因此极大地提高中国在世界上的公共形象和国民生活质量(他们中有几百万人看起来那么不开心,于是选择了在国外生活)——而且还减少了(高碳耗的)军事“需求”。

Resorting to nationalism looses the argument

When Yu Qingtai refers to China's interest he is really referring to the local and state government interest, not that of China or its people. Resorting to raw nationalism as he does is a sign that he has lost the argument.

Please, Mr Yu, campaign vigorously against those countries which are making feeble attempts to ween their citizens off carbon - including that which is emitted in China but consumed elsewhere - but don't say that China is a special case. (Much of Germany's emissions)

If China sold a few more US Treasury Bills and reduced its military budget / nuclear arsenal, there would be more than enough to ensure that its laws concerning pollution (including in coal fired-power stations) were enforced - thereby greatly improving both China's public image worldwide and the life of the Chinese (millions of whom seem so unhappy that they now choose to live outside China) - reducing the "need" for the (very carbon intensive) military.



Cancun and Kankong

Our old village has a word very similar to Cancun(坎昆); kankong(侃空), which also means baloney. With regard to the Copenhagan agreement, there's nothing wrong with it or with Cancun. I think that fate has doomed us to a load of kankong; why?

Because some of our fundamental problems haven't been resolved. We certainly need politicians, but if all we end up with is politicians competing at speeches, what's the point? Our climate change experts are all politicians, not scientists, not serious scientists. They're good enough to hold some sway domestically, but not to discuss matters on the international stage.



Chinese- Style Thinking

When Yu Qingtai says "On what grounds? Our future economic planning is a matter dependent on our own ability to implement it, what qualifications do you have to audit our plans for the development of the national people's economy? Who gave you the right?" My response is that, if Yu Qingtai invoked the stipulations of the agreement, rather than such asking such "jiang hu" questions, perhaps rational people abroad would accept what he has to say.

But the difference in wording actually reflects differences in thinking. I still remember that he said that China today doesn't resemble China of one hundred years ago; at that time China could agree, whereas it cannot now. Such an attitude probably comes from the trauma caused by bullying powers in the past. I think that the beginning of true self- confidence in the Chinese people will only come about when they stop endlessly remembering past resentment, and establish a mild attitude.

Julian Chen


Julian Chen

1) "However,the CCP has different responsibilities": is that to say that there's only this one kind of interpretation of the Kyoto Protocol?

2) 30% and 40% of this kind of comparison treats us all as idiots.

3) Other than "equality", "transparency" is important in the same way. The problems with the transparency and accuracy of Chinese envronmental data are simply too numerous to mention.

4) Chinese national interests should certainly be considered, because national interests constitute one part of the interests of humanity, as long as a given government really does represent the interests of the people of its' country.

5) We should respond to climate change in the spirit of co- operation; confrontational interaction cannot spur the process onward.


英文:China’s interests must come first

Intriguing Title Translation

Chinese: "Men Are Born Equal"
English: China's interests must come first



Reply to Comment NO.7

I don't think the title was a translation problem. People from different cultures have different reading habits. Both of these two titles are taken from Yu Qingtai's speech, they are just titled in different angles. And many articles at chinadialogue use different titles for English and Chinese versions, presumably this is the same.



Reply to Comment No. 8

Yes, many articles on China Dialogue do have different titles for the Chinese and English versions, mainly according to whether the translator has opted for a literal or a more liberal translation. However, in this case it’s clear the issue isn’t quite so simple. I’m inclined to believe this was a deliberate intervention on the part of the editor.

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