BEIJING — Ambassador Yu Qingtai is China’s point man on global warming. As special representative to the climate change talks for China’s ministry of foreign affairs, Yu is a forceful advocate for China’s view that while his country will do its part, the primary responsibility for fixing the problem rests squarely on the shoulders of the United States and other industrialized countries. And he bristles when reminded that many US experts put on the onus on China’s rapidly growing economy and industrial might.
“There were those who came to China years ago and described us as a kingdom of bicycles,” he says, when I mention some of that criticism. We’re sitting in a conference room at the foreign ministry, where Yu has come to be questioned by a small group of journalists invited to Beijing by the Chinese People’s Institute for Foreign Affairs. As China modernizes, he says, every Chinese citizen has the right to all of the modern industrial and transportation options enjoyed by, say, Americans – including the right to own a car. “We should not be expected to stay forever as a kingdom of bicycles!” he says.
He has a point.
“The environmental problems we face today are not the making of China and India,” he says. The accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere has been growing for the past two centuries, during which Europe and the United States emerged as industrial powers. “Eighty percent of the gases in the atmosphere are the result of emissions by the developed countries, and on a per capita basis it is even more,” he says. That’s a view that has been widely accepted during worldwide climate-change talks through the United Nations and elsewhere, resulting in an international convention that calls upon the developed countries to take major steps to reduce carbon emissions while providing financial assistance and technology to less developed countries such as China and India. So far, however, no accord has been struck, and it isn’t likely that a breakthrough will occur next month at the Copenhagen summit, either. The fund set up to provide financial aid to the Third World on climate change is virtually empty. How much is in it? I asked Yu. “Nothing,” he answers.
Together, China and the United States account for about 40 percent of carbon emissions, with each country contributing roughly 20 percent, or one-fifth, of worldwide emissions. But on a per capita basis, the United States emits five times as much as China does. Yet that disparity doesn’t prevent some analysts, such as Elizabeth Economy of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, a recognized expert on China and the environment, from suggesting that in the future China will have to bear most of the burden to reduce emissions. Last June, in congressional testimony, Economy said: