Bend it like Beijing

With the climate conference in Copenhagen less than two months away, Pakistani climate expert Adil Najam talks about unresolved issues and explains why he thinks China will save the world.

Adil Najam is the director of the Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future and professor of International Relations, Geography, and Environment at Boston University. Najam was lead author of the third and fourth assessment for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for which the IPCC was awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore and other scientists.

The top UN climate official Yvo de Boer recently called China the new leader in fighting climate change. Do you agree?

Yes. I have big hopes in China. China will do things its own way, but ultimately it will do the right thing because it knows it is in its own interests.

China is tackling climate change as a developmental issue; it is not going to cut emissions the way the U.S. or Europe will, because its development trajectory is different. But here is a country that understands climate and takes it very, very seriously.

And it’s a country that is central to the success of the Copenhagen meeting. Beijing has begun bending the curve on its emissions. It is growing, but each new dollar of growth comes with less emissions. In some ways, other developing countries will also have to learn to ‘bend it like Beijing.’

Speaking about Copenhagen, what do you expect from the upcoming UN climate conference?

I think Copenhagen will be an important milestone, but it is not a destination. All of us need to understand climate change is a long-term game, not a sprint. Copenhagen is not the end. Copenhagen is just one pit stop in a longer race.

There are many things that are still undecided: China is undecided, India is undecided, and the U.S. is undecided. A lot of these decisions will need to be made before real headway can be made. That headway may not itself be made at Copenhagen, but if Copenhagen can be a step in the right direction, then it will be worth all the effort.

Has the U.S. stance changed under Barack Obama?

The U.S. stance had already changed even before Barack Obama became President. They’re still not a party to the Kyoto Protocol, but they have slowly begun to accept that they cannot totally sit out of the global climate regime.

That started happening in the last days of the Bush administration, and now under President Obama these processes has speeded up. But clearly it has not speeded up enough. Not yet.

But the economics of climate change have become clearer. Before, the U.S. and others would argue that if we do something big it will cost us a lot. Now, over the last two or three years, we have come to realize that if we don’t do anything it might cost us even more. That is the biggest change.

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