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FT: China waves its little green book

Published: August 16 2009 18:44 | Last updated: August 16 2009 18:44

Most developing countries stubbornly resist western admonitions on the need to cut carbon emissions. Until recently, that included China, but signs from what is now the world’s largest emitter suggest a cultural revolution is afoot in its attitude to climate change policy.

For the first time, two senior climate change officials, Yu Qingtai and Su Wei, have left open the possibility that China will plan for an eventual peak in emissions. “Emissions will not continue to rise beyond 2050,” said Mr Su.

As a quantitative measure of China’s intention to help fight climate change, the statement fails to overwhelm. But until now, China has preferred to bang on about what the west must do rather than say what it will contribute.

China’s change of heart need not reflect a concern for the planet’s health. The still-nascent state of green power generation makes it an obvious bet for Beijing, which has placed it at the centre of its industrial policy. With a combination of subsidies and protectionism, China hopes to corner the market and leap-frog the competition – so far with success. China is overtaking the US as a market for wind turbines; its solar cell industry is the world’s largest; and Chinese “clean coal” technology is attracting foreign customers.

Beijing, not blind to the commercial opportunities a serious climate change agreement would bring, is now practising industrial policy at its most strategic: using foreign policy to make the market grow.

It also has pressing environmental needs at home. Global warming is not a local problem, but fossil fuel spews out more than carbon dioxide. Renewable energy could spare the Chinese – who still rely on coal power – the abominable air pollution industrialisation has brought there as it did elsewhere.

In its desire to be treated as a global power China has slowly come round to the need to show responsibility if it is to gain respect. That means meeting present challenges without being mired in arguments about the past – such as demanding that rich countries fix global warming alone since it was they who caused it. True as this is historically, insisting on it will lead to no solution at all. Beijing understands this. Its more recalcitrant neighbour India, also aspiring to great power status, should take note.

Some think Beijing’s greening is a ploy to dominate the next growth industry. If so, it is a ploy to be welcomed. Would it not be gratifying if China, instead of feeding the west’s consumer boom, sold it the tools for sustainable growth?



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