THE BLOG

In Paris, We Let China Off the Hook

16/12/2015 08:49 GMT | Updated 15/12/2016 10:12 GMT

I was told to bring gifts to my first Chinese business negotiation. Something British, and expensive.

Arriving I indulged in the obligatory double-handed presentation of business cards and studiously examined my counterpart's credentials. 'Give him face' I was told. I was ebullient with esteem, commenting on the seniority of his position and the size of his office.

After three drink fuelled hours discussing my family, his restaurant side-business, the finer points of Chinese tea drinking and how best to win the affections of a local girl for marriage it was concluded it had been a fruitful discussion and we left. Not once had we touched upon discussing the £20,000 investment we were seeking. Yet I was assured by my then Chinese business partner we had secured good faith, a more valuable currency, and that the detail would be forthcoming. It was not, although the 'face' secured on our prospective investor's side was.

The comments of Xie Zhenhua, China's chief climate negotiator at the Paris climate change negotiations, were redolent of this encounter - a triumph of platitudes with the devil in the detail. "Fair and just," "highly ambitious, enduring and effective", a choice selection of adjectives Xie deployed to describe what many have hailed as a successful outcome, and yet some as a mixed blessing.

Like the good faith of my business negotiation, the curate's egg of Beijing's commitments need to be dissected further, particularly when it comes to the detail.

The facts on the ground are clear. China is the world's largest polluter by volume. If greenhouse gas emissions from the US and all EU countries were added up they would still be less than those of the Middle Kingdom, which accounts for a quarter of global carbon emissions.

The Chinese government, along with counterparts from every country on the planet committed this weekend to peaking greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Earlier this year President Xi Jin Ping laid out a plan for his country to cut the carbon intensity of growth - emissions per unit of economic contribution - by 65% from 2005 levels.

Whether China can live up to the seemingly high standard it has set itself remains to be seen. One thing is clear however; on its current trajectory it is hard to see how it will.

The Climate Action Tracker, an independent coalition of international research bodies, recently suggested China's emissions reduction plan, the Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) published in June this year, is "not consistent with limiting warming to below 2°C".

This is in large part down to the country's reliance on the most carbon heavy of all fossil fuels, coal.

In 2012 coal accounted for 66% of China's total energy consumption. To put this into perspective coal comprised 20.5% of the UK's energy mix in Q1 of this year. While coal consumption has fallen over the past 12 months in China, the US Energy Information Administration expects absolute coal use to rise in the long term, as demand for energy rises.

On the three hallmarks of the Paris deal it remains unclear that China will be forthcoming. Peaking emissions by 2030 can only be achieved by starving the country's addiction to coal. Concomitant has to be an investment in cleaner sources of energy. On the latter China has put some countries, including our own, to shame accounting for one quarter, some $1.8tn, of global investment in renewable energy.

Yet signs that the Government's affection for coal is waning are not entirely supported by its actions. A New York Times report this weekend found Chinese state enterprises have, since 2010, committed to building 92 coal-fired power plants in 27 countries. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a Beijing-backed and funded challenger to the World Bank, is expected to allow funding of coal-fired power plants that the latter has all but blocked.

The second is putting money behind warm words. As a non-developed nation China will not be contributing finance to the $100bn earmarked to helping low-income countries tackle the ravages of climate change. President Xi has separately promised $3.1bn, although it remains to be seen whether funding will be conditional or not.

The final, and perhaps most important hallmark of the Paris deal, is global transparency around meeting climate targets. On this front China has eschewed its responsibility, negotiating an exemption to the requirement to report and review progress every five years. The ignominy to China's pride from allowing international inspectors access to track emissions, it is argued, would amount to a desecration of national sovereignty.

This argument might hold sway in a country where national reporting could be held up to scrutiny. In China, it is not. Just last month reports emerged that the Government has underestimated by 17% the volume of coal burned since 2000. At over one billion more tons each year more than previously disclosed this sum is greater than Germany's annual coal consumption.

The signature of the global movement for a deal in Paris was clear: to change everything, we need everyone. I would argue the spirit of this hope is being betrayed by China's approach.

At the heart of changing everything is an admission that something is wrong and transparency in the solution going forward. On the first matter we have seen some progress from Beijing; on the latter only reticence.

The Chinese have an idiom: hearing a hundred times is not as good as seeing once. While a constructive pinch of cynicism has to be taken when Beijing speaks, one can only hope that in the long term I am proven wrong. The alternative is almost too bleak to consider.