China’s Position on Climate Change, & Repositioning Global Discussions

Regardless of whether you believe COP15 still has hope, or is a predetermined failure, the fact is that in about 3 weeks a large number of scientists, environmentalists, policy makers, and cleantech funds are going to be in Copenhagen… and the world will be watching.

Even prior to the recent announcements from Singapore though, many had already begun gaming the outcomes, and hyping the need for China and the US to drive an agreement.  ANY AGREEMENT.

There have been countless articles offering analysis on what may happen.  Articles that are typically (Yes, I am stereotyping) one sided and promote either the views of the West (led by the U.S.) that China needs to step up to the plate or views from the developing world (led by China) that the West needs to own up to their past.

Recently, as part of their effort to help their clients understand the issues, Edelmen’s Shanghai Office developed their own white paper Leading to COP15: Understanding China’s position on climate change.  The goal of the project was to:

I am currently working on a White Paper on China’s climate policy and negotiation stance leading up to the COP15 talks in December. While a lot has been said recently about China’s green leadership, our aim is to provide a more “holistic” picture of what the issues and landscapes are on the ground in China, and how these are likely to influence China’s negotiation position in Copenhagen.

At 8 pages, this paper offers what I feel are some great insights for firms who are operating in China, or who are trying to understand the “China position“.  It is a paper whose bias is very middle ground, and does not look to promote either side (Chinese or West/ Environmentalist or Skeptic), but offers a pragmatic view of the issues that China is facing and how those issues define its approach.

One of my favorite conclusions being:

In short, to better engage stakeholders in China, the climate change debate must be reframed in a way that resonates with individual worldviews.

[..]

For consumers worldwide, ‘green’ works best when it is connected with something more ‘reallife’. In China, this means issues like personal health and product safety, cost-savings and social status. There is great potential to stimulate  grassroots momentum in China if we can link climate change with things people experience every day, such as air pollution. But more than this, the debate needs to empower consumers around the impact that can be achieved if 1.3 billion people make small changes to their everyday lives. Using more energy-efficient light bulbs is but one example of a new action proposition, which appeals to householders’ desire to save money, while also having a measurable environmental impact.

Interviewed as part of the project, and quoted twice, I spent about 30 minutes speaking with them about my own perspectives, and given the recent announcement from Singapore I wanted to elaborate on one portion of the conversation that I feel was most relevant to the apparent back step that was taken.

In the first line of report, I am quoted as saying “Carbon is not the problem per se. Carbon is the by-product of a number of different issues around environmental and economic sustainability

This is not a new line for me (as regular readers will know), however as I explained in other conversations, it is this point that I feel has not only been lost.. but ultimately is the reason for the collective step back.

In short, why I see this as the key issue is that as the world focuses on “carbon”, the ability to have a tangible conversation, develop tangible goals, create tangible steps forward, and take tangible measurements is largely lost as carbon is not actually the problem.

First, regardless of whether or not you believe “carbon” is the problem that should be focused on, it needs to be said that when we moved from carbon dioxide, methane, sulfur dioxide, and nitrous oxide to “carbon”, and “carbon” based solutions it had an effect: It has one again removed the public from the conversation;  it has made it easier to refocus discussions to technologies yet to be developed; it has lumped a number of issues together and created a log jam; and more importantly, it has create an intangibility to discussions and reports that have undermined the programming process.  Stymied discussions on CORE issues like Urban Planning, transportation, manufacturing processes, and so on.

Second, regardless of whether or not you believe in global warming, or the effect humans have on this process, the entire process in the West has been driven by intangible emotional connections to polar bears, ice caps, and future scenarios of apocalyptic collapse.  Again, it has isolate citizens from the conversation, even when they are being impacted, It is not about what is happening today, but about what will occur somewhere else, at some time in the future, and being too big to do anything about… without technologies and multilateral agreements.

Finally, and this leads to the core problem, scope shift.  Look at reports from 18 months ago, and then compare those to now.  There has been a shift in the messages.  From messages that were focus on what happens, globally, should we not make structural changes to economies and make the long term investments, to who benefits from those investments.  What was once about common good, has now shifted to who benefits today.

So, to sum up, the process has been focused on the byproduct, is not tangible to the average citizen, is too big for anyone, but has the potential for HUGE local economic benefits that should not be forfeited to others.

No wonder leaders decided to step back and reevaluate.

As I wrote in the comments section in Yale 360’s analysis of the Singapore announcement, there are 5 steps I believe must happen for us to move forward to a point where we can move forward on real programs that yield real solutions

1) stop using climate change as if that is the CORE PROBLEM.
2) stop using distant emotional appeals for change.
3) stop using catch phrases and technologies of the future as the only options.
4) negative externalities need to begin being priced into the system.
5)  We need to decide what is the goal.
6) We need to stop telling citizens that they can go about their day, and their government will take care of it.

If we take these steps, and take the time to reframe not only the problems we face (and how to address those problems), then I think you will see progress in the right direction.  Governments will come together to develop targeted agreements, corporations will work to invest in solutions that offer maximum benefit vs. maximum financial return, and CITIZENS will be in a position to where they can effectively rejoiin the conversation.

Then, and only then, do I feel forums like COP15 will be their most effective.

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