Between Trust and Tension: Cooperation for a Better Climate
8 Oct 2015 at Robert Bosch Stiftung Berlin
It is understood that we need global cooperation to effectively combat climate change, and emerging economies such as China and India play a crucial role here. But many obstacles to cooperation between the EU, China and India remain. Not only do different levels of development infringe on ambitious binding shared climate targets, but different mindsets and intercultural misunderstandings also impact on the level of cooperation. What are the expectations of China and India as „new players“ in the game? What perceptions do they have of global climate politics and how best to cooperate with traditional powers such as Europe?
To elaborate on possible joint climate goals and the impact of differences in cultural perceptions and levels of trust and distrust, a vivid panel discussion was launched, bringing together three experts on international relations, development and climate policy: Wang Yiwei (China), Bharat H. Desai (India) and Dirk Messner (Germany). Clare Shine of the Salzburg Global Seminar moderated this debate.
Debating at Eye Level
Emerging powers strive to be treated as a partner at eye level – a common critique advanced by Chinese observers is this lack of respect in the attitude of their Western counterparts. Therefore, Christian Hänel from Robert Bosch Stiftung stressed respectful dialogue as a crucial goal of the debate. And picking up on the topic of international misunderstandings in climate change policy, Catalina Cullas from the German Federal Foreign Office pointed at the example of incomprehension and disbelief that Germany often encounters for its efforts of a nuclear power phase-out. She also urged, that efforts of emerging economies such as China and India in mitigating climate change have to be made more known to the German public.
Picking up on this, Minister Li Xiaosi of the Chinese Embassy in Germany noted prevailing distrust and prejudices of the German media and wider public against China, and assumed this might result from a general lack of information. He therefore urged Western media to better ensure objectivity in reporting about China and also called for the Chinese side to learn to „tell China’s story better, so that the world reaches a more thorough comprehension of China’s motives“ and overcomes cultural bias.
Important changes in Chinas`s mindset
Wang, an expert on China’s international relations, pointed out important changes in China’s mindset about climate change during the last years: Starting from an initial belief, that the Western climate discourse was mainly aimed at slowing down China’s rise, China increasingly came to trust in the importance of mitigating climate change, but insisted on doing this unilaterally; only recently, it takes a more cooperative approach in the international system. „China has now adopted the dream of clean air and water, something you already take for granted in Germany.“ In order to reach this dream, he emphasized the need for a strong hierarchical government to combat crises such as climate change in China. He also called for a better organization of the next climate summit, so that civil society actors positively contribute and don’t „highjack“ the climate deal again, as it, in his view, happened in Copenhagen (with lobbyists). From the audience, worries were expressed that in many countries, spaces for civil society actors to advocate for better climate policies are currently being reduced.
Convincing people to change their lifestyles
Desai, an experienced representative in Indian climate working groups and delegations, stressed that the biggest challenge at the heart of climate mitigation will be convincing people to change their lifestyles – a Gandhian dictum. Our capacity to deal with nature remains still very limited and we are often unable to make the connection between natural disasters, for example, and climate change. In India, an awareness of climate change is there, and many developing countries help doing grassroots work, now, to mitigate climate change – but the reluctance to agree on legally binding targets remains. And the UN is often simply seen as a talk shop. „But“, he reminded us, „it is the only institution of its kind that we have, and we need to find global solutions and learn the lesson of reaching legally binding agreements.“ Fortunately, even in emerging economies, you increasingly see the public pressure. The message has cut through. But taking India for an example: With 400 Mio. people without access to electricity, it is hard to justify huge investments into climate friendly technologies. „At the same time, we like to speak of India as a digital India and smart cities“, he said, „but this needs reliable power supplies, therefore, a fossile phase-out is hard to force through.“
Desai is critical of the modern mindset of technological development for the sake of technological development. Do we always need to do what is technically possible without thinking about the consequences and environmental impact that some new technologies bring about?, he asked. But he does not like to preach. He prefers just to start with himself.
Overcoming fossiles by 2070
Messner, an expert on development economics, although approaching the topic from an economic view point, skillfully presented the facts in a comprehensive manner for the audience to take home. Picking up the Indian worry of financing renewables, he made the point that 400 Mio. people with no access to electricity can profit from renewables, especially in remote areas with no access to an electricity grid. He projected that renewables will soon catch up on fossiles in price levels (once they reach a 20% share of our energy supplies). Strikingly, following an IMF report, fossile energy currently still receives a tremendous amount of subsidies – around 6,5% of the gross world product.
In line with Desai’s argument that we need not do everything just because it is technologically possible, Messner’s key message was that we absolutely need to leave most of the fossile fuels that we already know about in the ground. Burning them would produce far more CO2 than the world will be able to take. The goal is clear: „By 2070, the world needs to have reached a total decarbonization of the whole economy.“
Climate mitigation is key to sustainable development
The climate problem is key to global sustainable development: If the climate problem will not be solved, other achievements in development targets will be spoiled. Currently, the poorest people on earth pay the highest prices for energy – not only in terms of money: In China, fossiles heavily damage the health of people, and due to severe pollution many families cannot even have children anymore. In India, renewables could provide affordable power for remote areas. And maybe, approaches like the German model of decentralized renewable energy production could help bringing down energy prices.
Messner stressed that we will not solve the climate issue in Paris. It will be hard work to decarbonize afterwards, and to this end, we need rigid mechanisms including monitoring, reporting and verification, to hold governments accountable, once binding agreements have been reached.
A civilizational shift put into action by each and every individual
As to Desai’s advice that in the end, there is no avoiding of the fact of changing our individual lifestyles, Messner underlined the simple truth that a large amount of CO2 in the world is currently produced by food wastage. For example, in Germany, on average about 40% of food is wasted. So every household can make a difference.
In reaction to the closing question of how to change people’s mindset, Messner pointed out that generally, people from the financial sector are hardest to convince of the benefits of renewables, but even in this sector climate change is increasingly being perceived as a threat to stability. So change is under way, but this needs to be a civilizational shift driven by global citizenship – a most radical shift of every individual in our thinking, habits and lifestyles.
Report: Ines Sieckmann