Propelling the Durban climate talks - China announces willingness to consider legally binding commitments post-2020

Propelling the Durban climate talks – China announces willingness to consider legally binding commitments post-2020

China’s Vice Minister for Climate Change Xie Zhenhua launches the China Pavilion alongside UNFCCC Secretariat Cristiana Figueres.

This post originally appeared on ChinaFAQs.

When China launched its first official pavilion at a UN climate conference on Sunday, UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Secretariat Cristiana Figueres was there alongside China’s NDRC Vice Minister Xie Zhenhua to cut the ribbon. Swarmed by journalists in the standing-room only conference center of the China pavilion in Durban, Figueres applauded China for being a “trend-setter” in global renewable energy, resonating around the world and during the first week of climate negotiations in Durban.

“As I look at what has happened here at Durban in the negotiations this past week, what I see is a sailboat that has been sailing over very difficult waters, but with the wind blowing the right direction. And now that you have arrived, that boat now has a powerful motor behind it,” she said. The motor propelling talks forward into the second and final week of negotiations here in Durban may be developments in China’s negotiation position that emerged last week. An announcement that made waves was with regards to China’s willingness to consider signing on to a legally-binding agreement with binding climate targets after 2020 for the country.

Lead Chinese negotiator Su Wei told media last Friday that, “We do not rule out the possibility of legally binding. It is possible for us, but it depends on the negotiations,” Su is quoted as speaking in English rather than Chinese, presumably to make his point clear.

Although China made similar noises in Cancun, Su’s statement is the first time in the international climate negotiations that China has made this type of overture so clear with regards to a willingness to consider placing its post-2020 action into a legally binding instrument. This willingness to discuss the legal nature of post-2020 targets comes directly counter to the United States’ position put forth in Durban last week in which Jonathan Pershing, Deputy Envoy for Climate Change, said that a legally binding post-2020 agreement would be unacceptable unless other major economies also agree to be legally bound. Indeed it would seem to fulfill one of the US’ main conditions for moving forward.

If China is indeed open to placing its post-2020 commitment into an internationally legally binding instrument, it has just opened a pathway forward to both securing the Kyoto Protocol for the post-2012 period and building a bridge, with all Parties, to a legally binding regime in the near future. The impact of this is not to be underestimated.

Vice Minister Xie Zhenhua confirmed China’s stance when he spoke at a briefing for international NGOs immediately following the China Pavilion’s launch. “We can start the process for a legally-binding framework for issues after 2020,” Xie said, clarifying five conditions that must be met before China can make its commitments legally binding in an international agreement. These conditions are:

  1. Parties must continue the Kyoto Protocol through a second commitment period;
  2. Developed countries must meet financial commitments to provide developing countries $30 billion in fast-start financing and $100 billion per year by 2020 through the Green Climate Fund;
  3. Institutionalization of consensus on finance, technology transfer, REDD+, adaptation, and transparency measures;
  4. Commitment to completion of the review of adequacy of long-term goals scheduled to take place between 2013 and 2015.
  5. Define a framework for a post-2020 agreement that upholds common but differentiated responsibilities, equity, respective capacities, and environmental integrity.

If all conditions are met, Xie says, “We are open to the process.”

Implications – will China’s move bolster the EU mandate?

The question remains as to whether these major developments in China’s position here in Durban will have a significant impact on the negotiations in Durban. The European Union has stated its openness to placing its 2020 targets into the legally binding Kyoto Protocol if it is part of a package. The package includes a roadmap that would clearly show the way forward for all major economies to be in a binding regime in the post-2020 time period, the negotiations for which would end in 2015. China’s statements agreeing to internationally-binding emissions limits in a post-2020 framework might galvanize other major emerging economies such as India and Brazil to do the same.

Jennifer Morgan, the Climate and Energy Program Director at the World Resources Institute, explained the significance of China’s new posture:

“If China is indeed open to placing its post-2020 commitment into an internationally legally binding instrument, Europe and the most vulnerable countries are now its key allies. If these Parties can work together this week, Durban has a good chance of success,” Morgan added.

It is not yet clear what kind of commitment China would be willing to bind, and that level of specificity does not appear to be part of the current discussion.

Jonathan Smith (JD‘12/MEM’12) and Max Song (MEM’12) contributed to this piece.