Beijing has begun to adopt a more assertive role in global climate change negotiations to head off the development of a regime which it worries could force it to cut emissions and scale back its economy.
China’s aggressive posture was on display this week at a UN meeting on climate change in Bangkok, when Beijing’s representatives tried to ensure the conference communiqué specifically blamed industrialised nations for global warming.
In recent weeks, China has led an alliance of developing countries disputing the right of the UN Security Council to debate climate change and has suggested the country’s one-child policy should be credited for ameliorating the situation by keeping down the world’s population.
Beijing’s fears of being targeted on climate change were heightened by the statement late last month by an official of the International Energy Agency that China could become the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases as early as this year.
Beijing disputes the IEA claim, describing it as “complete rubbish”, but has yet to put forward its own detailed case to counter the assertion.
The coincidence of China’s explosive economic growth and the hardening global consensus about the dangers of climate change has given the country’s leaders a sense of vulnerability on the issue.
Paul Harris, of Lingan University in Hong Kong, said: “China wants the freedom to respond to this issue based on its own needs. They are trying to lay the ground for the future when they are going to be called upon to take more responsibility for the problem.”
Mr Harris said China’s disquiet about the pressure it faces had been fuelled by the historical resentment it feels about being lectured by the west. “They don’t like to be told by the west or anyone else what to do.”
Statements by Chinese officials have attempted to focus on Beijing’s central argument, that global warming is first and foremost a problem created by rich countries, which should take the lead in fixing it.
Beijing’s position has widespread support among developing countries, including India, which regard efforts to impose mandatory reductions in emissions on them as tantamount to interfering with their right to develop.
China’s relatively high emissions compared with the size of its economy are a result of the disproportionately large share in its economy of energy-intensive industries, such as steel, cement and aluminium.
China also relies on coal to generate about 70 per cent of its energy needs, much of it in power stations which either do not have or do not use equipment designed to reduce damaging emissions.
The pressure on Beijing has been somewhat lessened by the Bush administration’s own refusal to countenance mandatory emissions cuts, reflected by its rejection of the Kyoto protocol.
However, the election of a new US president could quickly change policy in Washington and move the spotlight on to China.
“It’s very difficult to tell Americans to clean up when they can turn on their TVs and see affluent Chinese living it up,” said Mr Harris.