How A Chinese Climate Activist Fooled The World’s Green Media

  • Date: 03/06/14
  • Andrew Revkin, The New York Times

‘I’m not a government official and I don’t represent the government’, Chinese green energy advocate and climate adviser admits.

Having covered China’s stance on global warming since 1988, I’ve gotten attuned to the need to tread carefully when something is said that feels like a shift in the official position of this greenhouse gas giant.

The ancient Chinese mask-changing dance that I saw here Tuesday night (at a dinner for participants in a meeting on science and sustainable development) came to mind in considering the unraveling of news a few hours earlier of an official Chinese plan for a firm cap on emissions of carbon dioxide, hard on the heels ofPresident Obama’s proposed carbon pollution rules for existing American power plants.

Here’s how things played out. An adviser to the Chinese government on climate change was quoted by Reuters as saying the following at a Beijing climate-policy conference on Tuesday:

The government will use two ways to control CO2 emissions in the next five-year plan, by intensity and an absolute cap.

The comment came from He Jiankun, a professor at Tsinghua and deputy director of China’s Expert Committee on Climate Change, speaking at an international forum on market mechanisms for low-carbon development sponsored by Harvard University and Tsinghua University.

The story quickly pivoted to how significant this would be given the context of President Obama’s move and informal climate talks starting on Wednesday in Bonn, Germany, aimed at setting the stage for fresh climate treaty work later this year at the United Nations and in Lima, Peru.

The Guardian quickly followed Reuters with “China pledges to limit carbon emissions for first time,” a piece canvassing climate campaigners but offering no reinforcing input from the Chinese government.

I consulted with The Times’s Beijng bureau. Christopher Buckley, a reporter who in 2011 had covered China’s emissions plans while with Reuters, spoke with He Jiankun, who told him repeatedly that he did not in any way speak for the government, or the full expert climate committee.

Here’s Buckley’s translation:

It’s not the case that the Chinese government has made any decision. This is a suggestion from experts, because now they are exploring how emissions can be controlled in the 13th Five Year Plan…. This is a view of experts; that’s not saying it’s the government’s. I’m not a government official and I don’t represent the government.

A Reuters reporter told me tonight that a correction was being posted, but not before other newspapers – including USA Today with a piece on China’s “emissions pledge” – built on the report.

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