On the Environment
Tuesday, February 01, 2011
By Susanne Stahl
By Angel Hsu and Yupu Zhao
Last month’s UN-led climate talks in Cancún, Mexico, were largely touted as a success, as countries reached near consensus on critical issues such as technology transfer and the creation of a new Green Climate Fund to help developing countries adapt to global warming. The standing ovation for the Mexican hosts that erupted in the summit’s final plenary session came in stark contrast to the conclusion of last year’s Copenhagen talks, which ended behind doors, closed to civil-society observers.
Another marked change in Cancún was China’s tone and communication strategy, following heavy criticism at, and after, Copenhagen.
Whether the finger-pointing was valid or not, Copenhagen was a watershed event for China. In the run-up to the summit, Beijing put forth a voluntary commitment to reduce carbon intensity by 40% to 45% by 2020, compared to 2005 levels, breaking with precedent of avoiding specific emission targets. By making this pledge, as well as by recognising that it would not be first in line to receive financial assistance from developed countries for adaptation and mitigation measures, China stepped into a leadership role. Despite these efforts, the country’s relative lack of experience in climate diplomacy meant it still walked away as Copenhagen’s scapegoat.
“China was surprised by the emphasis on MRV [measurement, reporting, and verification of emissions reductions] in Copenhagen and the negative media attention it received, since it felt like it had brought a lot to the table by agreeing to reduce its carbon intensity and taking significant steps to improve energy efficiency and renewables,” said Alvin Lin, China climate and energy policy director at US environmental group the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Transparency of emissions data has been a key sticking point for the United States in climate negotiations. In Copenhagen, US delegates, including secretary of state Hillary Clinton and senator John Kerry, insisted that major emerging economies like China and India must be transparent about their emissions information before the United States would enact climate legislation and provide climate aid. Backed into a corner, China reluctantly agreed to international consultation and analysis (ICA) of its climate pledges – a less stringent version of MRV required of developed countries.
And so one lesson China took from Copenhagen was that it needed to improve its climate diplomacy and revamp its image, if it was to avoid shouldering further blame – particularly if the Cancún talks “failed”. The government started by releasing domestic media accounts that portrayed China’s role in Copenhagen as positive and constructive. Then, in October, China hosted its first UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) conference in Tianjin. The intersessional meeting in the lead-up to Cancún was a prime opportunity for China to showcase itself and reaffirm commitment to the UNFCCC process. But, while Tianjin provided Chinese media and NGOs with ample training ground, eyes were really turned to Cancún, waiting to see how China would respond after the previous year’s public-relations fiasco.
How did China’s strategy change in Mexico? First, it stepped out of the limelight, assuming a much lower profile than it had in Copenhagen. In Denmark, China joined other countries in setting up a pavilion in the Bella Convention Centre, where experts gave lectures and senior members of the negotiation team held daily press conferences. But amongst Cancún’s pavilions – including stands from not just the United States and the European Union, but also first-timers like India and Qatar – China’s was notably absent.
Second, the Chinese negotiation team made concerted efforts to speak in much softer tones in Cancún. A New York Times article pointed out that Chinese negotiators avoided mention of the United States by name, instead “obliquely” referring to it as an “Annex I country that is not a party to the Kyoto Protocol”: a far cry from the Sino-US blame game that erupted in Tianjin. The language was so soft that major media organisations started prematurely reporting that the United States and China were close to brokering a deal on MRV, before the two delegations had actually met.
China also took a new approach to communicating its negotiation stance on key issues, particularly on transparency. In Copenhagen, Chinese officials had appeared elusive when they opposed MRV on grounds of violating the country’s national sovereignty. But in the lead-up to Cancún, Chinese officials decided to be forthcoming. An article in chinadialogue quoted Xie Zhenhua, vice minister of China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and the head of the Chinese delegation, as saying in strong, clear terms that “China will be transparent.”
Chinese civil-society organisations also contributed to efforts to refashion the country’s image in Cancún. A coalition of China-based NGOs was active in organising side events and distributing materials that showcased China’s climate success stories. Student-led initiatives between US and Chinese youth emphasised the need to build trust based on dialogue and mutual understanding. And Chinese and US-based NGOs, taking their cue from the youth collaborators, met and formalised a long-term action plan for cooperative action. Meanwhile, the private Chinese company Broad Air Conditioning demonstrated its sustainable building technologies at an off-site “Chinese pavilion” that was marked on shuttle-bus maps – and even confused by some for an official Chinese government pavilion.
Chinese media organisations also worked hard to portray China positively in Cancún, helped by the negotiation team’s efforts to make themselves available for interviews in the build-up to the conference. The China Daily, for instance, produced two 16-page glossy specials that were distributed during the first and second weeks of the summit, covering various aspects of China’s actions on climate change, such as efforts to promote low-carbon growth in cities, and including commentaries by foreign experts on international collaboration on clean energy.
Li Xing, assistant to the China Daily’s editor in chief, said Cancún was the first time the newspaper had published special climate conference reports: “I was in Copenhagen covering the climate talks last year. During that conference, quite a few papers, including the Financial Times and Japan Times, published special reports.
“In contrast, there was very little coming from China, except fliers at the China booth. That is why we thought of making China more understandable to the outside world here at Cancún. It is largely China Daily’s own initiative, but it does fit in with the wider government initiative to make China better understood in the world.”
The process to revamp China’s climate-communication strategy has, however, suffered inevitable growing pains. Several news articles during Cancún’s first week suggested China was still being misunderstood. A Reuters piece created a lot of excitement when it misreported that China had announced willingness to submit its voluntary emission-reduction targets to an internationally binding process – a “game-changing move”, according to many observers. But senior Chinese officials were quick to refute the claims and clarify that China’s position had not changed.
Huang Huikang, special representative for climate change at China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who was quoted in the media reports, recognised the gaffe and told a group of young people from China and the United States that there were still translation issues when it came to speaking to foreign media. He pointed to the dual-edged nature of the press: while contributing to transparency and trust-building, it can also sensationalise and report inaccuracies.
China’s nascent climate diplomacy will only prove more critical for China in the build up to the next major climate meeting in Durban, South Africa, a period during which the international climate regime could significantly change for China. As Cancún failed to determine the legal form of the new climate agreements or to resolve what to do when the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012 – two key questions for China and other major developing countries – China will be faced with a particularly difficult conundrum: to be more conciliatory as in Cancún or to hold ground as in Copenhagen. Then in Durban, the new climate diplomacy of the world’s largest greenhouse-gas emitter may be tested once more.
Wednesday, December 15, 2010
By Susanne Stahl
By Angel Hsu and Yupu Zhao
In the politics of climate negotiations, which are often steeped in nuance and careful posturing, it’s easy to get lost in translation. On the ground in Cancun, reports have been flying about China’s so-called “game-changing” concessions, which could possibly “buoy” the climate Talks, which are quickly nearing an end. As we’re both on the ground in Cancun, we’re going to try to clear the air and get to the bottom of what exactly the Chinese have and haven’t said in the climate negotiations.
The first “game-changing” issue regards the legal nature or “bindingness” of the commitments China made at Copenhagen last year, in particular to reduce carbon intensity 40 to 45 percent by 2020 from 2005 levels. A Reuters article suggested that China was offering “for the first time to submit its voluntary carbon emissions target to a binding U.N. resolution.”
This announcement immediately made a big splash here in Cancun, with buzz in the corridors of China potentially “buoying” the negotiations. However, various media reports and press statements by Chinese officials themselves have muddled where China stands on this particular issue. Last year in Copenhagen, China committed to make its pledges domestically binding through national law. This move to make their carbon intensity reduction target as part of legally-binding, domestic law has been further confirmed through announcements by senior officials that the goals will be incorporated in the next two Five-Year Plans.
Therefore, from this angle, these statements are what Stern called “nothing new” and “business as usual” in Tuesday’s press conference. But what some here have suggested would be “game changing” would be if China were to submit their pledges to an official Conference of the Parties (COP) decision.
In this view, China formalizing its Copenhagen pledges in a UN agreement under the UNFCCC (such as the Kyoto Protocol) would be a move that developed countries have signaled readiness for but developing countries have not. This is mainly because under the Kyoto Protocol, which is legally binding, the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities exempts non-Annex I countries (i.e. developing nations) from requirements to mitigate their climate impacts.
“Earlier, some Chinese officials were reluctant to do so because they thought this commitment would mean a detraction from the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities,” says Roy Lee, a professor of law at Pace University, who has been advocating such an action by China for some time.
However, according to our analysis and conversations with members of the Chinese delegation, these suppositions are based on misunderstandings of what the Chinese were trying to say about their commitments to make their carbon intensity targets part of domestic law.
Liu Zhenmin, the Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs and Deputy Director of the Chinese negotiating team, said in an interview with Chinese journalists that foreign news outlets sometimes falsely report on China’s position due to language barriers and translation problems, hinting that China still hasn’t made any commitment to the idea of “legally-binding,” as reported by Reuters.
Opening up to MRV?
The second major concession media reported was on the measurement, reporting, and verification (MRV) of Chinese emissions data and climate mitigation actions. Early last week, before U.S. and Chinese negotiators had officially met, the Associated Press announced that the two countries were close to agreeing on MRV, an issue that proved to be hotly divisive at last year’s Copenhagen climate summit and even in preliminary talks in Tianjin, less than two months before the talks in Cancun began.
However, it appeared that the AP based their premature analysis on softer language by both the U.S. and particularly from China, which was perhaps a strategic move on the part of the Chinese to revamp their image from Copenhagen. Then on Monday, the Associated Press reported again that China had “said all their operations, including fully domestic actions, would be open to international scrutiny.”
This statement, while not entirely inaccurate, is largely misleading. At a press conference on Monday, Xie Zhenhua- the head of the Chinese delegation and Vice Minister of China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC)- reaffirmed pledges of transparency made in Copenhagen and Tianjin. These included willingness to submit actions receiving support, technology transfer, or capacity building through the UNFCCC process to international MRV mechanisms. In addition, China’s voluntary, domestically-funded actions - which are the main concern of developed countries like the United States - would be subject to review by “international consultation and analysis” (ICA), the official language included in the Copenhagen Accord. ICA has been proposed as a MRV-type transparency mechanism applicable to developing countries that undertake unsupported and voluntary mitigation actions, yet in the view of some countries it is distinct from the more stringent MRV mechanisms proposed for developed nations. The specifics of both MRV and ICA are still vague and options are currently being debated in Cancun without much progress. Therefore, the statements regarding transparency here in Cancun are nothing new.
Some of this media confusion also centers on a proposal attempting to clarify these transparency measures, which was made by India’s Minister of Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh. Ramesh suggested at the Major Economies Forum meeting Nov. 17-18 that countries with a share of global emissions greater than 1 percent (around 16 countries) should submit actions to ICA once every two to three years. When the talks began last Monday, Nov. 29, the Chinese delegation was mum on whether China supported Ramesh’s proposals; while Todd Stern, U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change, said that the proposal was “light” and lacked enough specifics. In fact in the same press conference, Stern mentioned deliberations regarding MRV represented the least progress to date in Cancun - far from news reports of U.S. and China being close to reaching agreement.
The U.S.’s position aside, where exactly China stands on Ramesh’s proposal, which has been gaining support amongst developing countries since negotiations began in Cancun, is unclear. Shortly after arriving in Cancun over the weekend, Xie met with Ramesh and discussed the proposal for four hours. Despite BASIC countries, which include China and India, deliberating the ICA proposal, it is still unclear as to what extent it receives China’s endorsement. Nevertheless, Minister Xie did suggest that the next step is to discuss the details of the proposal, particularly on the frequency of assessment for qualified developing countries. Xie reiterated the country’s support of the principle of ICA- that it should be non-intrusive, non-punitive, and should respect national sovereignty.
So - are the Chinese changing the game here in Cancun or simply reiterating the status quo? Our assessment is that the most significant factor for the Chinese has been its shift in communication and messaging, which has “softened” their image and subsequently led to the dramatic headlines we’ve seen so far in Cancun. But more on that piece later.
Tuesday, October 19, 2010
Guest post by Angel Hsu Original post can be found in The Atlantic. Coming away from this past week of negotiations at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change meeting in Tianjin, the sense is certainly that time is not on our side. While delegates from more than 150 countries were charged the task of whittling down options on the table to prepare for heads of state and ministers in Cancun, the talks concluded with dishearteningly little progress, a widening divide between developed and developing countries, and resurfacing tensions between the U.S. and China on climate change. From my observations in Copenhagen to most recently in Tianjin, the acrimony between the US and China appears to still rest on three of the most hotly-contested letters in the climate debate - M, R, and V, which refer to the measurement, reporting, and verification of mitigation actions and financial support. In Copenhagen, China agreed to international verification of actions receiving financing, technology transfer, or capacity building; while also consenting to "international consultation and analysis" (ICA) for its domestic actions, which include a pledge to reduce carbon intensity 40 to 45 percent by 2020 from 2005 levels. At a press conference early in the week, I heard the head of the Chinese delegation Vice Minister Xie Zhenhua say that China was trying to increase transparency and did not have any major problems with MRV - as long as national sovereignty was respected. The differences in viewpoints between the US and China at the talks in Tianjin caused major rifts in the discussions and culminated with the Chinese lead negotiator Su Wei calling the US a "pig preening itself in a mirror." In the classical Chinese idiom where Su derived the comparison, Zhubajie zhao jinzi, li wai bu shi ren - meaning "pig in mirror, not human inside or outside" - the half-man, half-pig character Zhubajie is portrayed as lazy, gluttonous, and idiotic. [my note: anyone who is familiar with China's Journey to the West will know the Monkey King and Man-Pig characters] Needless to say, in Chinese culture, this less-than-desirable comparison is considered an undiplomatic slight. Su's comments in the corridors of the Tianjin Meijiang Convention Center reflect his obvious frustration with what he feels is hypocrisy on the part of the U.S. in the climate negotiations. During a press conference, Su criticized the United States for failing to meet its UNFCCC commitments, particularly in terms of pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to provide financial assistance to developing countries. He said it was unfair for the United States to criticize China and make them the scapegoat in the climate debates when the United States itself "isn't doing anything," Su said. His remarks were counter to a speech Todd Stern, Special Envoy for Climate Change in the United States, gave at the University of Michigan Law School in which he said that China was "spurning" commitments made in Copenhagen, acting as if the agreement "never happened." And there's evidence that the Chinese are working to improve capacity as well as transparency of its measurement and reporting systems. Sun Cuihua, the Deputy General-Director of the Climate Change Coordination Office in China's National Development and Reform Commission announced at a side event that China is currently working on a centralized database of GHG emissions, which would include emissions data from Chinese municipalities and provinces and would eventually become open for the public. Although no specific timeline was given for completion, this is a major announcement, considering the most recent publicly-available data for GHG emission levels of Chinese provinces dates back to 1994. Despite these efforts, the US still pushed China on the MRV issue in Tianjin, which I think could have been a negotiating tactic on the part of the US to deflect attention away from the fact that the Washington still has been unable to pass national legislation on energy and climate change. What perhaps bothers the US most on the MRV issue is the fear that if China indeed backs away from the Copenhagen Accord in the negotiations, its promises of MRV and ICA go along with it. This fear was expressed by lead US negotiator and Deputy Special Envoy for Climate Change Jonathan Pershing. Discussion on measurement, reporting, and verification of GHG emissions even amongst non-government actors has also become particularly sensitive following the Tianjin talks, as I've heard from colleagues here in China that several US-China bilateral workshops planned to discuss MRV have been canceled. So without the two largest climate behemoths talking constructively - and not bickering - what does this mean moving forward to Cancun? First, geographical differences aside, Cancun is not going to be any Copenhagen. The expectations are already much lower -BBC news is contemplating only sending one correspondent to cover the talks, as opposed to around 30 last year. Hopes for a legally-binding deal have long been off the table - I could even sense the difference in Pershing's more relaxed demeanor in Tianjin compared to Copenhagen. Second, the inability of countries in Tianjin to make enough progress on the negotiation text means that some important issues identified in the Copenhagen Accord may not be discussed in Cancun. Bright points at Copenhagen, such discussion on credits from avoided deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+), were barely even touched at the talks at Tianjin, which do not bode well for hopes of a decision in Cancun. There is an urgent feeling that Cancun is the last shot for all parties to come up with enough concrete action to maintain the credibility of the process moving forward into the next year. If countries are unsuccessful in agreeing upon enough concrete actions in Cancun, there are rumblings, particularly from the European Union, that some parties might jump ship and try bilateral talks or negotiations through the G-20 or Major Economies forum instead. Unfortunately, if multilateral negotiations do start to disperse centrifugally, the one bilateral relationship that stands to make the most difference on the global climate - the one between the US and China - could be damaged in the UNFCCC process.
Friday, October 08, 2010
Posted by Angel Hsu (Original posting can be found at chinafaqs.org) Having the intercessional UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meeting in China this week – the last stop before ministers and heads of state meet in Cancun for the sixteenth Conference of Parties (COP-16) – provides a timely opportunity for participants to witness firsthand elements of China’s clean energy and climate policies in action. As China has become a world leader in developing and deploying key technologies needed to capture and sequester carbon, the U.S. Climate Action Network (USCAN) and the Clean Air Task Force organized a site visit to GreenGen – China’s first commercial-scale Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) power plant located in Tianjin, approximately an hour’s drive from the Meijiang Convention Center, where negotiations have been underway. GreenGen – a $1 billion project led by China Huaneng – represents a joint venture between seven other Chinese enterprises and has the support of the Chinese government, including the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and the Ministry of Science and Technology. U.S.-based Peabody Energy also joined the project in 2007 as the only foreign investor. While the Chinese refer to GreenGen as a “research demonstration project,” visiting the site a mere year away from completion of the project’s first phase, left our group with little doubt that this project means business. The first phase of the IGCC plant will produce a full-sized plant’s 250 MW of power, heat, and synthetic gas (syngas). Li Liangshi, the Deputy Chief Engineer of China Huaneng in Tianjin, said construction of the plant began in 2009 and is expected to be completed by the end of 2011. GreenGen demonstrates multiple IGCC technologies that can hopefully be scaled to simultaneously address several environmental challenges – and not just climate change and energy security. To address criteria air pollutant abatement, GreenGen features pre-combustion technology that will strip pollutants such as SO2 and particulates from the coal syngas, according to Deborah Seligsohn, Principal Advisor to WRI’s Climate and Energy Program. GreenGen’s second phase will implement fuel cell power generation and carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology for nearly zero-emission power generation. The third phase of the project is planned for completion by 2016, when the plant would produce a total of 650 MW and 3,500 tons of syngas per day. The presentations by Chinese climate and energy experts here in Tianjin have emphasized the critical nature of technologies like IGCC and CCS for China to achieve its energy and carbon intensity reduction targets, particularly as China will continue to rely on coal for a large portion of energy production. In a presentation on Oct. 5, Professor Jiang Kejun of China’s Energy Research Institute emphasized how crucial CCS is for China to make deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. The emission models for China Prof. Jiang and ERI have been working on assume wide-scale deployment of CCS post 2030. Returning to the context of the negotiations in Tianjin, a big piece of the discussion has surrounded technology transfer from industrialized countries to developing countries, to both mitigate and adapt to climate change. However, China shows the capacity to promote two-way exchange in areas like IGCC and CCS. Huaneng’s Mr. Li said that all of the technologies used for the first-phase GreenGen IGCC are manufactured domestically by Chinese companies, with the exception of the Siemens gas turbine . While China has growing capture experience, it is just beginning to try to actually inject CO2, with the first such injection likely to begin at a Shenhua Coal Liquefaction Company project in Inner Mongolia in the next few months. This latter project has received technical support from a number of US technical organizations, many of which are in the newly announced US-China Clean Energy Research Center (CERC). Against the smoggy skyline, I could not help but be impressed by the sheer scale and speed with which GreenGen has emerged within the past year. Seligsohn, who had first visited the site a year ago on a study tour of Chinese CCS sites for American experts, remarked that last year on their visit, the site was nothing more than foundation. Although Mr. Li admitted GreenGen’s price tag was not cheap, he said that if successful, Huaneng plans to roll out many more similar IGCC-CCS plants. And with China continuing to build about 30 power plants a year, according to Jiang, these technologies could have a significant impact on China’s air quality and greenhouse gas emissions. ChinaFAQs Expert Angel Hsu is a doctoral student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Her research focuses on Chinese environmental performance measurement, governance, and policy.
Monday, October 04, 2010
Guest post by Angel Hsu, doctoral student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. I’m blogging live from the Tianjin intersessional meetings of the United Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the last stop on the way to the big Conference of Parties (COP-16) meeting in Cancun, Mexico this November. The mere fact that China is hosting this meeting is significant for several reasons. This is the first time China is playing host to the UNFCCC climate negotiations, signaling its commitment to the UNFCCC process and the issue of climate change itself. As the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, China continues to demonstrate recognition of its role in the global problem of climate change, hosting the intercessional meetings during its national day holiday – a fitting time for China to demonstrate its nationalism and rising leadership in the climate debates. For many, as NRDC’s Jake Schmidt argues, attending the talks in Tianjin will allow first-hand experience of China’s clean-energy revolution and actions on climate change. The main charge of delegates here in Tianjin is to narrow down the set of options available on the table. As Jennifer Morgan, who heads the Climate Change and Energy Program at the World Resources Institute, said in a recent press conference, a key aim of this task is for delegates to “[reconnect] what leaders did and said in Copenhagen and to formalise that in the UNFCCC into a set of decisions, combined with a clear pathway in the form of a legal document.” Parties will produce “draft decisions” on issues such as adaptation, financing, REDD plus, accounting and verification, mitigation pledges, and technology transfer so that when heads of state meet in Cancun, they’ll be able to quickly move to identify points of common ground on these issues to carry enough momentum into South Africa for COP-17. What can’t be ignored this week in Tianjin is the current state of China-US relations. Recent headlines such as the complaint filed by the US steelworkers union against Chinese clean-energy subsidies and a bill currently being discussed in Congress that would penalise China for keeping its currency artificially low are evidence of the current tenuousness of Sino-American relations. It remains to be seen this week whether such a political backdrop will cloud the climate discussions in Tianjin between the two countries, particularly on issues such as financing, technology transfer and the Measurable, Reportable, and Verifiable (MRV) aspects of actions from developing countries and of commitments and support from developed countries. As you’ll remember from the COP-15 discussions in Copenhagen the United States came in demanding international verification of China’s domestic climate actions, a move that riled and split the Chinese delegation, although China in the end agreed to “international consultation and analysis”. However, according to Kenneth Lieberthal, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, this agreement to “international consultation and analysis” was only made reluctantly and caused considerable dissension within the Chinese delegation, as it went beyond what the Chinese representatives had in their talking points coming into Copenhagen. Lieberthal contends that the Chinese were unhappy in particular about bringing in the MRV piece into a formal COP-approved process; instead, the Chinese are looking only to bring in elements from Copenhagen that prove useful and basing negotiations in the two-track process of the Kyoto Protocol and the Bali Action Plan. I’ll be following the MRV issue closely over the next few days, as part of my dissertation research and the reason why I’m in Tianjin as an observer. To make matters worse, the United States also missed an opportunity to engage in high-level climate and energy discussions with the high-level Chinese officials, including NDRC Vice Minister Xie Zhenhua, who – as host of the negotiations – is undoubtedly present and available. While the US delegation is in the perfectly capable hands of Jonathan Pershing, deputy special envoy for climate change, the presence of his boss, Todd Stern, would have given tremendous mian zi (literally, “face;” or figuratively, “dignity or respect”) to the Chinese hosts. The talks would have been prime opportunity for the two climate behemoths to repair some of the ground lost over the last year. Despite the daunting challenges always on the plate at these UNFCCC meetings, I hope that delegates here heed the charge of executive secretary Cristiana Figueres during this morning’s welcome plenary session – “Now is the time to act”, else we threaten to forfeit the credibility of multilateralism in solving the global climate change challenge. More to come … follow me on Twitter at @ecoangelhsu for real-time updates from the Tianjin Meijiang Convention Center.