Can Carbon Ever Be Neutral?


There’s an old Chinese adage that warns, "one mountain cannot fit two tigers". The Asia-Pacific region now has to somehow accommodate four tigers. The four big greenhouse gas emitters of the Asia Pacific region — China, the United States, Japan and India — interact through a prism of economic and strategic competition. And as America’s "unipolar moment" fades into memory, confrontation is increasingly on their minds.

The Copenhagen climate talks coincide not with the fading of American power, which remains preeminent in the Asia-Pacific region, but with the increasing capacity of other players to challenge that power: China’s "rise" is accepted as a given by many; Japan has the capacity to rapidly remilitarise its exceptional industrial base; and, as India continues to grow its economy, it deepens its strategic footprint.

Instability is a common concern. Peking University Professor Wang Jisi has warned of a "new Spring and Autumn Warring States period". A senior Indian diplomat has observed, of China and India: "Both of us think that the future belongs to us. We can’t both be right."

In Copenhagen, the wrangling between the Asia Pacific powers reflects not just differences on climate policy but also concerns about their relative positions in the wider power game. As economic strength is crucial to strategic power, it is in each party’s interest to force higher climate offers from their competitors, while putting as little as possible on the table themselves.

The competition between the US and China thus far has played out over the difficult questions of climate finance and emissions reduction targets.

US climate envoy Todd Stern has vigorously defended Barack Obama’s announced target which the Chinese have dismissed as unremarkable. Stern also rejected the notion of climate debt and said he could not "envisage public funds from the United States going to China," because funds are "limited — that’s just life in the real world". He put the onus on China as the fastest growing emitter: "We can’t have an agreement that doesn’t have a real commitment by China." America is in the midst of an unemployment crisis and China holds a vast store of US treasury bills. Climate aid for China from the US is, to put it mildly, a hard sell.

On Thursday, Chinese negotiator Su Wei gamely returned serve to his "old friend" (as Chinese convention dictates he must be), Stern: "All parties … should be courageous enough to face up to their historical responsibilities." Su congratulated Obama on his Nobel Prize and lauded him in almost messianic terms: "All the participants … expect President Obama to bring us good news and hope." China wants to squeeze finance and technology out of the US. It also has an interest in portraying the US as negligent on climate.

Su also argued that "the question of climate finance should not be decided by just one party." China has long emphasised multilateralism in its public diplomacy, in deliberate contrast to American "hegemonism", a term which in Chinese carries connotations of bullying and tyranny.

The disagreements between China and Japan over climate policy must likewise be located in the context of their difficult relationship.

In recent years, Japan has cast off its post-war pacifism, upgraded its "self-defence" capabilities and started to question its reliance on American protection. Chinese apprehensions have grown accordingly — and now extend to Japanese climate policy. The ambitious target announced by Japan’s incoming government in September was widely seen as a political stunt designed to pressure China, because implementation depends on other major emitters following suit. It was with this condition in mind that Su Wei took aim at Japan, accusing the world’s second largest economy of effectively committing to nothing at all.

The Japanese have maintained a low profile at Copenhagen so far. Japan’s government is preoccupied with a corruption scandal and difficulties with America over the Okinawa base. It has no reason to let China off the hook by moving to unilateral implementation of its emissions targets, especially with strong opposition from industry and elements in the economic ministries.

India fears marginalisation by the stronger powers. As the poorest power of the Asia Pacific tigers, it fears that a rapidly developing China will shift its position by increments and move closer to the developed countries’ positions. India used pre-Copenhagen consultations to head off this scenario. After the US had upgraded its climate cooperation with China, India’s Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh emerged from talks with his Chinese counterpart to claim that "there was no question of China doing any side-deal" with the US.

Talk of a Sino-US "G2" has been shown to be, at best, premature, but if a Sino-US stitch-up on climate ever eventuates, it will vastly weaken India’s position. So it is unsurprising that Ramesh has verballed his Chinese counterpart on more than one occasion, claiming that "there is virtually no difference in Indian and Chinese negotiating positions".

Thus far, the unified position of the BASIC countries (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) has been solid, fending off the US on one side and Tuvalu (don’t laugh) on the other. It is likely to remain so for the remainder of the conference. In strategic and economic terms, China’s peer competitors are the US and Japan.

But China’s commonality of interest with India on climate rests on transitory economic conditions. If these diverge by a sufficient margin, China could well play climate politics to India’s strategic expense, as it is attempting to do with the US and Japan. China and India dispute large swathes of their long border, and have fought a war along it. War between the two is not unthinkable. They are bitter rivals.

And there is an additional layer of complexity for the negotiators to contemplate. Not only are the current climate negotiations a field for ongoing competition, climate change will itself shift and exacerbate strategic concerns among the powers. In The Art of War, Sun Tzu listed five factors to be considered in military planning: weather, terrain, discipline (including supply lines), politics and leadership. Chatham House’s Cleo Paskal has noted that climate change directly affects the first four factors.

In nearby Oslo to receive his Nobel Peace Prize, Barack Obama acknowledged this security dimension to climate change: "There is little scientific dispute that if we do nothing, we will face more drought, more famine, more mass displacement — all of which will fuel more conflict for decades. It is not merely scientists and environmental activists who call for swift and forceful action — it’s military leaders in my own country and others who understand that our common security hangs in the balance."

Of course, what Obama left unsaid is that these military leaders are also preparing for the effects that climate change will have: adaptation to them will present new national security challenges. An example: rising sea levels will affect maritime border claims in highly contested spaces such as the South China Sea. Not for nothing has London School of Economics Professor Barry Buzan labelled climate change a "wildcard" in Chinese strategic planning.

For the Asia-Pacific powers, climate negotiations are a field of contention in the regional great game. As one of the key variables shaping the interactions between the US, China, India and Japan, climate change — and negotiations about how to address it — will only increase in significance.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.