Saturday, November 06, 2010

Killing Kyoto: Preening Pigs and Climate Change

I have an article up at Asia Times with the rather odd title "A Pig Preening Before a Mirror".

It addresses China's well-publicized international PR problems relating to its effective exploitation of the "Clean Development Mechanism", a Kyoto Treaty process for funneling global warming mitigation investment to developing countries.

A context for the flurry of criticism, some justified apparently justified and some apparently not, for China's alleged CDM-related transgressions, is enviro frustration with China and frustration with China's actions on climate change. 

But I think the real Western frustration is with Kyoto, and CDM as one of its fruits.

There is a certain enthusiasm in the U.S. for killing the Kyoto treaty.  If that happens, expect CDM abuses--and China--to be part of the story.

Because the alternate story is pretty grim, and doesn't show the U.S. in an especially flattering light.

Early this year, I wrote that the debacle at Copenhagen was attributable in fact to the U.S. need to find a scapegoat for lack of progress in creating a legally binding successor to Kyoto.

A U.S. commitment to mandatory national carbon caps was indispensable in order to strongarm China, India, and Brazil (plus South Africa these countries formed the so-called "BASIC" bloc) into taking the extremely unpalatable step of accepting carbon caps (and limits on economic growth) themselves.

The U.S. had opted out of Kyoto under Bush II.  President Obama, a genuine enthusiast for climate policy, had unfortunately scheduled the carbon bill to come up after he finished with health care.  Health care turned into a protracted, politically draining ordeal and President Obama headed off to Copenhagen without the keystone U.S. commitment.

Recognizing that the achievement of a true successor regime at Copenhagen was impossible, the U.S., in my view, decided to dodge the political fallout by painting China into the obstructionist corner instead. 

So, at Copenhagen, the U.S. made a great piece of political theater out of threatening to withhold billions of dollars in global warming funding for poorer countries unless China submitted to its demands for "transparency" in the process of documenting greenhouse gas mitigation activities.

Copenhagen was a train wreck, and the U.S. was happy to see China take the rap, underservedly so, in my opinion.

Back in the Obama-walks-on-water period, this was not a particularly popular view. 

The consensus in the West was to blame China for what Australian PM Kevin Rudd characterized as administering a Copenhagen "ratfucking".

Fast forward a year--and a notable lack of serious action by the U.S. on climate change while China is chugging along with some serious clean energy initiatives--and views on the climate change dynamic are somewhat more nuanced, at least for anybody paying attention.  In contrast to the global circus at Copenhagen, this year's conference in Cancun will pass virtually unnoticed by the public at large..

In my Asia Times piece I draw on an on-site report by Angela Hsu of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy.  Hsu attended a Tianjin preparatory meeting for Cancun.

She writes:

Su’s comments in the corridors of the Tianjin Meijiang Convention Center reflect his obvious frustration with what he feels is hypocrisy on the part of the U.S. in the climate negotiations. During a press conference, Su criticized the United States for failing to meet its UNFCCC commitments, particularly in terms of pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to provide financial assistance to developing countries. He said it was unfair for the United States to criticize China and make them the scapegoat in the climate debates when the United States itself “isn’t doing anything,” Su said. His remarks were counter to a speech Todd Stern, Special Envoy for Climate Change in the United States, gave at the University of Michigan Law School in which he said that China was “spurning” commitments made in Copenhagen, acting as if the agreement “never happened.”


Despite these efforts, the US still pushed China on the MRV [monitoring, review, and verification] issue in Tianjin, which I think could have been a negotiating tactic on the part of the US to deflect attention away from the fact that the Washington still has been unable to pass national legislation on energy and climate change.

In his report on Todd Stern's rip on the Chinese, Bloomberg's Jim Efstathiou reached out to Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists for a comment.

“I don’t know what the grounds are” for the Obama administration to say China is “not being serious about its commitment,” Meyer said in an interview. “They agreed to carry out that pledge. They’re not willing to make that legally binding.”


Nations also agreed to negotiate independent monitoring to verify their commitments. China has historically balked at such measures, Meyer said.

“The agreement on paper makes no sense unless you have actual guidelines,” for verification, Meyer said.


“China is not very impressed by what the U.S. is doing,” Meyer said. China has been “more clear on the steps they will take to meet their target by 2020 than the U.S. is on Obama’s pledge to meet the 17 percent cut without legislation.”

In contrast to its grand plans for Copenhagen, the United States has subsequently adopted a remarkably dismissive tone concerning Kyoto.

At the Major Economies Forum--a climate gabfest that the US and EU envisage as a successor to the current process, stripped of those irritating and self-righteous third world countries and giving the U.S. its deserved podium space--Todd Stern weaseled determinedly on the issue of Kyoto's future:

QUESTION:  Svenning Dalgaard from TV2, Denmark.  In Copenhagen we saw particularly the G77 insisting that the Kyoto protocols would carry on and that all negotiations should be led on that basis.  Don't you meet the same demands here in your own forum?

MR. STERN:  The Kyoto protocol question is a very difficult one, I agree with you.  And there was some discussion of the Kyoto protocol here in the MEF meeting.  The parties have very different views, very different views on that.

The U.S. is uncharacteristically not, as compared to all the other issues, we aren't really a player on that issue because we're not part of the Kyoto protocol.  So we are a very actively interested observer rather than real participant on the Kyoto issue.  But it is very difficult and you still do have a lot of parties in the G77 who are keen on having a second commitment period.  And you have a number of the industrialized parties who are resistant to that.

And by the way, it's not so hard to understand the concerns about it.  The Kyoto -- the representative from Australia actually passed around a little chart that showed that Kyoto covers 28 percent global emissions.  The Copenhagen Accord, at the moment, if you look at the parties who have made submissions, covers over 80 of global emissions.

It is also true that Kyoto -- I refer to what I've described as the Kyoto paradigm a little earlier, where all the action comes from developed countries and not from developing.  And I think that there are as many people, and this certainly includes the United States as a general matter, who believe that you can't possibly solve this problem on the back of 40 or 45 percent of global emissions, that you have to solve the problem on the back of 85 or 90 percent of global emissions.

So it is a -- again, we aren't a direct participant in that debate, but it is an ongoing and difficult debate and very much unresolved.

"Weaseling" is not a fair word, I guess.  The G77 were right at Copenhagen.  The United States and EU want to kill Kyoto.  That--not Chinese resistance to intrusive inspections--is the story.

If Kyoto--which is set to expire in 2012--dies, the cap exemption for China, India, and Brazil dies with it.  The embarrassment of America's retreat from Kyoto is forgotten.  Time for a new deal!

Trouble is--back to square one--no global greenhouse cap system is going to instituted without binding U.S. participation. 

U.S. national cap and trade legislation was a forlorn hope even before the mid-terms; after the midterms, even President Obama abandoned his plans.

At the end of the Asia Times article I did the math on global warming.

To have a 75% chance of averting the 2% rise in global average temps that is supposed to be a catastrophe, the world should pump no more than 750 billion tons of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by 2050. 

The current emission rate is about 30 billion tons per year.

To meet the budget, everybody would have to cut back at least 30%.  Right now. 

Not gonna happen. 

EU may do it's share, as part of its rather noble effort to try to solve the world's problems by itself.  China's stated policy is to cut intensity as a ratio of energy to GDP, but the absolute number is going up.  India and Brazil are expected to keep increasing emissions also.  United States--well, I guess we can ask President Boehner what he thinks.

Back of the envelope-wise, we'll probably miss the target by several hundred billion tons.

It's the end of the world, baby.

On a lighter note, the title of the AT article comes from a widely reported diss administered by China's chief climate negotiator at Tianjin, Su Wei, to the United States.

Thanks to Angela Hsu, we know the Chinese phrase:


Zhu Bajie looks in the mirror; he doesn't see anything human inside or outside it.

Zhu Bajie is an important character in the famous Chinese novel, Journey to the West a.ka. (in Arthur Waley's translation) Monkey.

Taking the historical journey of the Chinese monk Tripitika (in Sanscrit; Xuan Zang in Mandarin) to India to pick up Buddhist scriptures as a point of departure, Journey to the West is a mythological spectacular, a ten-thousand mile battle against gods and demons, starring the Monkey King as Tripitika's raffish supernatural protector.

Zhu Bajie (usually referred to as "Pigsy" in English) is another member of the Tripitika posse. 

He's half-man, half-pig, the result of a botched heavenly punishment.  His name means "Pig of the Eight [Buddhist] Precepts".

Zhu Bajie spends much of the book violating these Buddhist commandments and providing comic relief. 

He also represents the overpowering, earthy nature of man (his characteristic weapon is a lethal manure rake) that Buddhist practice is supposed to overcome through eons of reincarnation, meditation, and proper practice, and is a character whose struggle with his flaws readers can sympathize and identify with.

You can see Pigsy on the Sohu Internet channel  in the faithful, 57 episode (20+ hours) adaptation that recently aired on Chinese TV.

Remarkably, the Pigsy character was also the hero of two popular, for lack of a better term, TV supernatural rom-com soap operas, 春光灿烂猪八戒 Glittering Spring Light on Pigsy and  福星高照猪八戒 Lucky Star Shines on Pigsy.  In addition to appearing in the traditional swineface, Pigsy is incarnated on earth as a rather amiable and attractive young man searching for his true love.  Production values, acting, and special effects are best described as "enthusiastic".  You might not be up for the combined 78 episodes, but the opening credits here are well worth the click.

The anecdote about Zhu Bajie and the mirror doesn't occur in Journey to the West.  Maybe it came out of some later play, story, or opera.

Remarkably, nobody seems to know (and I did some serious reaching out to try to find out, believe me) where the mirror story arose and what it originally meant.

The most common account I came across was that Zhu Bajie came across a mirror.  He was repelled by the hideous reflection and broke the mirror; then he was confronted by multiple reflections of the same offending image in the mirror shards.


Today, apparently the phrase "Zhu Bajie looks at the mirror" is a commonly-used  xiehouyu--(歇後語)--a two-part allegorical saying, in which the second, explanatory part (in this case, "doesn't see anything human inside or out") is usually not spoken.

It has a variety of implied meanings.

The most commonly accepted one appears to be "tried to do something about a problem but ended up just making it worse".

I would expect that Su wanted to make the statement that the United States was trying to obscure its allegedly ugly record on climate change by attacking its detractors; instead, through its actions, it simply multiplied unfavorable perceptions of its behavior held by others.

That's rather subtle and almost impossible to convey in English.  So we have to settle for "pig preening itself in front of a mirror".


Justin said...

I didn't know you were Peter Lee the same person who writes for AT. I really enjoy your articles there.

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