China is now the largest national source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions causing climate change. These emissions must be limited and eventually reduced if the most catastrophic consequences of climate change are to be avoided. However, the Chinese government rejects internationally binding limits on its GHG emissions for two very strong ethical reasons: (1) The developed countries polluted the atmosphere as they became wealthy. Those wealthy countries should substantially reduce their emissions before expecting China to do so. (2) China is a developing country with millions of poor people. It should be allowed to raise living standards before being required to limit GHG pollution. This seminar seeks to find ways out of this dilemma by (1) interrogating the assumptions of China’s position in light of its current and anticipated economic circumstances; (2) disaggregating the Chinese state from its population to reveal the capacities and obligations of China’s growing wealthy classes; and (3) investigating alternative ways of viewing policies so that mitigation measures can move beyond the simplistic developed/developing countries dichotomy, thereby reassessing justice in the context of the practical realities of climate change. The principal aim is to relate an ethically acceptable way to reconcile the prevailing conception of international climate justice with the practical implications of climate change resulting from conceiving of justice too narrowly. China can maintain its ethical opposition to binding GHG limitations for the Chinese state as a whole while also being able to justify mandatory regulation of polluting behaviours of affluent people living in China. Implementing such regulation would enable China to contribute to international GHG abatement efforts without undermining its longstanding legitimate demands for international justice.
Prof. Paul Harris is Chair Professor of Global and Environmental Studies, and Head of Social Sciences, at the Hong Kong Institute of Education. He is author or editor of a dozen books on international environmental affairs, most recently World Ethics and Climate Change: From International to Global Justice (Edinburgh University Press, November 2009).
This seminar is part of the World Universities Network Contemporary China Center Virtual Seminars programme. This year’s series will focus on social development and political reform from economic, ethnic and ecological perspectives with a focus on issues of fairness and equality. The series allows audiences around the world to hear from leading scholars in Contemporary China studies and to engage in dialogue with one another across geographic boundaries. Each seminar includes an interactive question and answer session across all sites.
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