China – Saving Energy or Saving Face?

China, which last year walked away from COP 15 without agreeing to anything, now wants to hold its own climate talks.

The talks, scheduled for October, according to the UN’s top environmental official, Achim Steiner, will take place in the northern Chinese port of Tianjin, northwest of Beijing.

Government officials around the industrialized world are hoping that the Tianjin talks will pave the way for a new, binding, climate change treaty after COP 15’s spectacular failure, and that the neutral and unofficial platform will offer some clues how to proceed during the Nov. 29 – Dec. 10, 2010 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, or COP 16) talks scheduled in Cancun, Mexico.

This COP 16 itself is expected to deliver the key elements of a new climate change treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol, the first global agreement ever put in force.

Unfortunately, expectations are like soap bubbles, and the Kyoto Protocol – adopted in December of 1997, made official in February of 2005, and ratified by 187 states as of November of 2009 – has never gained the signature of the United States, a member nation, or the unqualified approval of China, a non-member nation.

Several other nations, members and non-members alike, remain equally undecided, and how this is going to change at COP 16 has never been fully explained. Given the current Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, even the venue is uncertain.

But the question of China’s position on emissions may in fact be moot, even though many analysts have said that China’s reluctance to submit to emission reductions is directly related to its desire to catch up to the developed world.

If so, China’s reluctance is understandable. In order to become fully industrialized – and reach a level of economic prosperity closely paralleling (if never meeting, let alone exceeding) the developed world – China will have to focus its efforts on making and selling the “stuff” the Western world craves.

In order to do this, China has to partially ignore the emissions issue, which it rightly considers unfair, since developed nations have already achieved their prosperity at the expense of the environment (and atmospheric, biological and ocean carbon levels), but now want to make sure that nations like China and India can’t do the same.

In fact, China is tackling its emissions problem outside the conventional frameworks like Kyoto and COP (COnference of the Parties), opting instead to regulate carbon simply because energy efficiency and renewable energy are elements of the kind of 21st century economy it wants to construct anyway, according to Premier Wen Jiabao, who has already threatened to use force to close “energy hog” facilities like the Guangzhou Steel plant.

So why is China proposing a pre- UNFCCC meeting? The behavior, which many Western analysts see as disturbingly schizophrenic, may in fact be nothing more complex than “saving face”, a cultural and psychological tool highly valued among Asian peoples like the Chinese, Japanese and Koreans (but also esteemed in Latin American countries, where “face” has overtones of masculine aggression and dominance).

The concept of “face” originated with the Chinese. Their understanding of the term is extremely complicated, and seemingly ambiguous at times, but loosely means a perception of one’s own worth based on: social status; what one expects of oneself; and what is expected of one by others.

For example, if a Chinese diplomat offers a concession that looms large in his personal lexicon of values, and it is rejected out of hand and without discussion by someone whose values are different, the diplomat will experience a severe loss of face, both on the social and moral plain, especially if the rejection take place in public.

China, which is currently the world’s biggest carbon dioxide emitter, is clearly losing face over its emissions stance, and the Tianjin talks may be more about ego bolstering than emissions reduction, but who can blame Chinese diplomats?

China (and India, and other emerging economies) will never get the same-sized slice of the prosperity pie as the U.S. and the EU achieved in the run-up-to-recession years starting in mid-1999, simply because there aren’t enough natural resources left on Earth to allow that to happen.

Western diplomats at COP 16 might want to give China back its face. There is little left to offer in the name of continued peace and prosperity.

Article by Jeanne Roberts, appearing courtesy Celsias.

photo: KyFlick

Skip to toolbar