Interview on BBC World News on China and Climate Change

BBC – Paris
02 December 2015

INTERVIEWER: China appears to be shaking up its power sector, aiming to reduce emissions by major pollutants in the industry by 60 percent by 2020. The announcement came as more than 190 countries gather in Paris to negotiate a binding climate agreement to limit the rising global temperatures.  China is the world’s biggest emitter, this week we’ve seen the choking effects. To show you this picture, this photograph taken in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on Tuesday at its height pollution climbed to 35 times World Health Organization safety levels. Have a look at the contrast here: the same location 24 hours on, blue skies above Beijing after strong north winds had arrived to clear up the air.


Well let’s get more on those Paris talks and speak to former Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd. He’s there in his current role as President of the Asia Society Policy Institute New York, also author of the UN Report on Sustainability. Thanks for joining us on Impact. You above all, perhaps, know the perils and toxicity of pledging to climate change green policies. I mean, many people would say it cost you your career in the end. What’s different this time?


KEVIN RUDD: I don’t think that’s accurate at all. We introduced mandatory renewable energy targets, a range of other measures, a price on carbon and we actually brought down Australian emissions by 7-10 percent in the period we were in office, so politics is a different matter. This is a complex negotiation here in Paris and we do not know what the final outcome would be but if I was to give you a general summation it would be that there is a six or seven out of ten chance of this becoming a substantive, legally binding agreement. Lots of obstacles on the road but I do think the prospects are vastly improved on what they were when we were in Copenhagen, five or six years ago.


INTERVIEWER: Would it have been different for you had there been that sort of consensus when you were at Copenhagen– and I don’t want to spend the whole interview arguing about your political career – but many of your critics would suggest that you moved from renewables because it was impossible and you switched the agenda and, as such, you were criticized for it.


KEVIN RUDD: As far as Copenhagen was concerned, we in Australia had global responsibilities not just national responsibilities. Nationally we acted on climate change. As I said, the numbers are there to see themselves; Australian greenhouse gas emissions came down. But in terms of global action that’s more important. Australia represents 1.3 percent of global emissions. What’s changed in the last five or six years? It’s probably in about five letters – C. H. I. N. A. China. The Chinese government has radically changed its posture.


INTERVIEWER: And this is what I want to discuss with you now because in Copenhagen you used a very choice phrase which I could certainly not repeat on television about how the Chinese decided to negotiate in the dying days of Copenhagen, which I’ll leave for the viewer’s imagination. Is that the reason? Is that the point? China has changed out of self-interest – that it knows it’s the biggest emitter, it’s got to do something about it now?


KEVIN RUDD: Well let’s just face a few facts here. Number one, is that China is now the largest emitter and, therefore, if you’re going to have them out of the game then, frankly, we may as well give up the game. But now that they are in with a 180 degree shift in their policy positions, driven by the domestic imperatives you mentioned before in the introduction, the problems arising from carbon pollution or air pollution in Beijing and other major cities. They are also seeing the evidence of climate change as well in terms of water scarcity. So China, for national interest reasons, is acting. That’s good news for the rest of the world. We’ve seen China adopt a much more constructive position on the core, outstanding disagreements in this draft Paris Agreement on Climate Change which still has ten days of negotiations ahead of it.


INTERVIEWER: Do you understand India’s argument that it needs to catch up with the developed world. 30 percent of the Indian population still doesn’t have electricity. You need to give countries like India time to develop and they need to be given dispensations.


KEVIN RUDD: I have a lot of sympathy for our Indian friends. With my new position at the Asia Society Policy Institute I’ve been in Delhi probably three times this year speaking to the government about climate change action. The truth is India is about 30 years behind China in the industrial development process which means there is a large lump of potential intensive carbon based industrial expansion ahead of it unless we act in support of our friends in India. So the key thing here is to make sure we don’t say to India, keep your people in poverty. That’s unsustainable and unjust. Two, when it comes to the coal requirements which India faces for the future, to do what we can in key technologies like carbon capture and storage and cleaner coal to reduce their carbon footprint to what it would otherwise be. But, critically, for the hundreds of millions who are not currently on the electricity grid at all, as you mentioned, to use local solar plants to provide them with the opportunity for electricity and lighting which they don’t have with a negligence carbon imprint. That’s where we’ve got to work with India, not against India.


INTERVIEWER: We’ve only got a few seconds left really, is this conference a potential game changer? Is a deal within reach, as Francois Hollande said at the opening and certainly you’ve got President Obama who seems committed to doing as much he can although he’s got a hostile Congress back at home?


KEVIN RUDD: Well the Congress back home will look at the question of whether the United States should be entering into treaty arrangements. What I would say to the American audience and to the Congressional audience is simply this: when you have an opportunity like this, with the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, it bring all countries together to act in a manner that brings down greenhouse gas emissions and leaves the prospect, by century’s end of keeping temperature increases within two degrees centigrade. If you look at what’s happening in California, in terms of intense drought, at the moment, I’d be looking at that. But here’s the other point on the legal regime, remember that these negotiations in Paris occur within the framework of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change which in 1992 was negotiated by George Bush Snr, signed by George Bush Snr and ratified by George Bush Snr. This Paris Agreement occurs within the framework of a treaty already ratified and so, therefore, this legally binding arrangement that we’re going to negotiate in Paris should not be seen as some wild, novel legal experiment from the perspective of the United States Congress.


INTERVIEWER: On that note, Kevin Rudd, thanks very much indeed for joining us here on Impact.