China raises the bar in Cancun

Excerpts of this blog were featured on Damien Ma’s blog on The Atlantic.

While expectations for the upcoming United Nations climate talks in Cancun have been intentionally kept low, China is doing the opposite – raising the bar for developing countries that have no obligation under current international regimes such as the Kyoto Protocol to address climate change, while urging developed countries to step up to the plate.

Last week, the Chinese government officially recognized – for the first time – its position as the top global emitter of greenhouse gases.  Vice Minister of the National Development and Reform Commission and China’s top climate official, Xie Zhenhua told reporters at a press briefing, “Our emissions volume now stands at number one in the world.”  To place this announcement in context, the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency reported in 2007 that China had surpassed the United States’ carbon dioxide emissions by 8 percent in 2006, which meant that China had taken the top spot earlier than the 2007 or 2008 prediction made by the International Energy Agency (IEA).  In the short five-years time I’ve been working in China on climate change and energy-related projects, I’ve witnessed a complete revolution with regards to the government’s attitude toward climate change – from unwillingness to even mention climate change in the context of energy efficiency projects to the announcement of a national climate change plan in 2007 and now to this declaration.  As recently as last year when working with China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection, my Western colleagues and I were asked to not include any references to China’s position as the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

Therefore, the fact that the government via Minister Xie made this announcement on the eve of Cancun reflects China’s acceptance of its contribution to global climate change and recognition that action on its part is critical to the success of the negotiations. From controversial accusations after last year’s Copenhagen climate talks that China had “wrecked the Copenhagen deal,” the country that became last year’s fall guy has worked diligently this past year to demonstrate that they don’t intend on taking the heat for any potential “failures” in Cancun.  China has done this by reaffirming their commitment to reduce carbon intensity 40 to 45 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, through a submission to Appendix II of the Copenhagen Accord and domestically through adoption of the target into national law.

Then last month, a senior energy official said that China would aim to reduce energy intensity 17.3 percent from 2011 to 2015 and 16.6 percent from 2016 to 2020 to reach the Copenhagen pledges.  These commitments have been further supported by recent announcements by various Chinese government officials regarding carbon taxes and market mechanisms like cap and trade to assist in achieving their mitigation goals.  Not to mention the fact that China hosted an extra negotiating session in October during their national “Golden Week” holiday in Tianjin.  Such efforts have lauded by UNFCCC Secretariat Cristiana Figueres, who said that China has “outperformed” on efforts so far to curb impacts on climate change.

So, while China has stepped up to the plate, what will be its game strategy in Cancun?  As an outsider to the process, I can only speculate from what I observed this last year from Copenhagen toward Cancun and what we’ve heard Chinese officials say thus far.  In general terms, we can expect China to act in their domestic interests, which center on energy security, clean energy and climate mitigation technologies, and economic development.  At the same time, China is engaging internationally in these talks as a leader amongst developing countries on climate change.  Nonetheless, as much as they’ve led by example, China is still putting the onus on developed countries to bring comparable mitigation efforts and financial assistance to developing countries.

Here’s a brief breakdown on where China stands on some of the key issues:

  • On the Kyoto Protocol: China would like to maintain negotiations in a two-track, parallel process that preserves the Kyoto Protocol by potentially agreeing upon a second commitment period beyond 2012 for developed or Annex I parties, while at the same time moving forward discussions on an agreement for Long-term Cooperative Action (LCA), which follows from the 2007 UN negotiations in Bali.  China views the Copenhagen Accord as a “guiding political document.”
  • On technology transfer: China says that talks will succeed only if developed countries ensure technology transfer to developing countries, preferably through a formalized mechanism under the UNFCCC and the Conference of Parties (COP).
  • On financial assistance to developing countries: China is taking a “hard line” with regards to developed countries meeting their obligations to provide aid to developing countries in adapting to the consequences of climate change, but at the same time willing to “make concessions.”  It remains to be seen during the next two weeks what exactly these concessions will be, considering the Chinese have already ruled out the possibility of any attempts by developed countries to tie climate aid to its acceptance of tighter international checks – or measurement, reporting, and verification (MRV) – of its greenhouse gas emissions.  Considering MRV of China’s domestic climate actions was particularly key for the U.S. during Copenhagen last year, I wonder if this isn’t a preemptive tactic on the part of the Chinese to dispel any initial attempts for bargaining.  Then again, the U.S. ruled out China as a recipient for its climate aid, and China also recognized it wasn’t first in line for financing anyways, saying the funding should absolutely go to least-developed countries and small-island states first.
  • On MRV: Predictably, the issue of MRV and transparency of Chinese emissions data was a central issue in the Tianjin intersessional talks last month.  In my recount of Tianjin, I observed that it didn’t seem like China was walking away from its pledges to “international consultation and analysis” (ICA) of their domestic climate mitigation actions, however vague the promises were.  In Cancun there might be potential to break the MRV deadlock, however, as India presented a proposal to the Major Economies Forum that provides clarity to what ICA would entail.  Environment Minister Ramesh Jairam proposed that ICA would take place under the UN auspices once every two to three years for countries with a share of global emissions in excess of 1 percent and be funded by an international mechanism rather than the country itself. All other countries would report once every 4 to 5 years.  While China has yet to formulate a position on this proposal, India has been a close ally for China since the talks in Copenhagen and it wouldn’t be surprising if China supports India’s proposal in Cancun next week.

While all of this amounts to the critical role China will play in the negotiations next week, we shouldn’t prematurely speak in terms of whether the talks will ultimately result in “failure” or “success.”  With a new legally-binding deal off the table far in advance, our main hope is that the outcome of Cancun will be a set of “fair and balanced package of decisions” on key issues and the preservation of the UNFCCC process itself so that countries stay engaged. Nonetheless, regardless of what may or may not come out of Cancun, what we can expect is that countries – including China – will continue to address climate change.

All of the excitement is unfolding week, when I’ll be in Cancun live-blogging and tweeting (@ecoangelhsu) the action as a YCEI Fellow. Stay tuned …