Measuring China's emissions - first you need rule of law
Compare these two paragraphs, the first from the Copenhagen "deal", the second from the Pittsburgh G20 declaration. The first tells how developing countries, including China, will report their efforts to meet their own targets on reduced carbon emissions.
"Non-Annex I Parties will communicate information on the implementation of their actions through National Communications, with provisions for international consultations and analysis under clearly defined guidelines that will ensure that national sovereignty is respected."
Now let's hear the G20, including China, on how they plan to harmonise financial reporting standards:
"We are committed to maintain the momentum in dealing with tax havens, money laundering, proceeds of corruption, terrorist financing, and prudential standards. We welcome the expansion of the Global Forum on Transparency and Exchange of Information, including the participation of developing countries, and welcome the agreement to deliver an effective program of peer review."
No worries here about "respecting national sovereignty" - because the various agreements, above all the Basel II - are in the form of a treaty or convention.
Newsflash to world leaders: a treaty necessarily involves the partial sharing of national sovereignty with a supranational body to police the treaty. The WTO is one example, the Geneva Convention, I could go on.
Now consider the problems of "national communications" coming out of a country like China.
Exhibit One: In November 2006 the Chinese government announced it had discovered: "65,313 unlicensed mines, 4,509 illegal excavations, 960 unauthorized prospects and 1,365 illegal transfers of mining rights."
The Chinese government is engaged in continual public crackdowns on illegal mines and other production activities that would directly contribute to its carbon emissions. But the local bureaucracy and mobsters are continually engaged in evading the crackdown.
Chinese media recently reported on one case of illegal coal mining. The report from China News Radio has been translated here and indicates allegations of official involvement in the maintenance of production at one illegal coal mine. Here's a quote from it:
"Why do coal mines in Hengshan county, which the Shaanxi province government long ago ordered be shut, continue to openly operate? One village resident says that this is because government officials and public servants have privately invested in the mines, and closing them would be in conflict with their interests."
When the journalists rang the local party secretary to put these allegations to him, here is the response they got:
"You China Radio journalists should mind your own business, don't you think? What you're asking about, I know absolutely nothing. So if you want me to tell you about something, how can I tell you about something I know absolutely nothing about?"
You can read the whole report on Danwei.
Exhibit Two: China's state secrecy law means that all potentially sensitive statistics about industrial production, including carbon emissions, may be designated in advance or in retrospect secret.
The most severe punishments under the law are reserved for those who provide information to recipients outside the country, and can include death. There are numerous case studies of environmental campaigners being repressed under the state secrecy law. Systemically the impact is, as Human Rights In China explains:
"The great elasticity of state secrets protections has contributed to a widespread culture of secrecy in the ofﬁcial handling and dissemination of information. The government has control over 80% of relevant information in society. This bottleneck of information is exacerbated by the lack of any independent supervisory mechanisms or precise classiﬁcation standards....
"To the CPC ... good governance has long rested on the principle of maintaining social stability and keeping a tight rein on information dissemination--including classifying critical information such as statistics related to health, the judicial system and the environment--in order to ensure political control."
In 2005 an environmental activist called Tan Kai set up a local environmental NGO to monitor chemical pollution which residents in Zheijang province believed were causing birth defects. According to HRIC:
"Tan, a computer repair technician,was formally indicted on April 29, 2006 of charges of "illegally obtaining state secrets," ostensibly for information he had obtained while doing routine ﬁle back-ups for his clients. However, the fact that on November 15, the Zhejiang provincial government had declared Green Watch an illegal organization calls into question the real reason for his prosecution."
So there's the problem. Since China has overtaken the USA as the biggest CO2 emitter (although its per capita emissions are much lower than the USA's) measuring and reporting its emissions are going to be crucial, even though it does not intend to reduce or cap emissions at all. In a big step forward China agreed to limit the carbon intensity of its growth, that is to slow down its rate of increase of CO2 emissions. But how do you measure it?
The state secrecy law is not the only problem. In large parts of China the writ of the central government does not run. This may seem strange for a country with such a powerful government, but it is observed by many western journalists who go there. (Robert Conquest's summary is a good starting point here, also my Newsnight reports this year on Western China)
The current trial of more than 40 members of the local bureaucracy in Chongqing, where senior party members have been accused of "triad like behaviour" is just one example of this. For a period this large city of 30 million people seems to have been in large part controlled by a network of corrupt officials. The Chinese government crackdown on corruption is ongoing, but it is necessarily retrospective: it can punish corrupt officials for defying central quotas and the rule of law, but any treaty or agreement coming out of the post-Copenhagen process has to be pro-active and behaviour shaping.
Does all this explain why Barack Obama made such a big deal out of transparency at Copenhagen and why the Chinese leader at one point walked out of the negotiations? The Chinese felt insulted by Obama's insistence on transparency mechanisms. But in the end Obama signed up to an accord that allows China to retain "national sovereignty" over the measurement of its emissions reduction targets. Winding up China over transparency on the last day of negotiations could be seen as possibly the surest way of making it look like they were to blame and not the developed countries. The current spin is certainly in the direction of "China is to blame".
Inevitably it is more complex. Chinese political reality is of this vast state bureaucracy which finds it difficult to control or even monitor the activities of local bureaucrats, and of intense official competition between regions and provinces of China over investment and infrastructure projects.
There is a long-standing and controversial school of thought in economics, led by Pittsburgh professor Thomas Rawski, which calls Chinese growth statistics into question. But emissions statistics are more crucial: Wen Jia-bao gave a commitment to reporting them transparently. But without effective scrutiny from the press, and with the state secrecy law always a threat to activists on the ground this is an issue that will haunt the attempts to rein in Chinese CO2 emissions, whatever the good intentions of its government and whatever it signs up to.