Monday, October 11, 2010

Insults, inaction & large carbon footprint in Tianjin

UN climate talks have ended in China without any major agreement. Delegates from NGOs, government officials and representatives from environmental groups had been brought together in Tianjin, a coastal city 137 km south-east of Beijing, to flesh out a strategy to combat climate change. But the talks were dominated with bickering which does not bode well for more talks to follow in Cancun, Mexico in two months' time.

There was continuing deadlock between China and the United States. Both major emitters of greenhouse gases refused to come to any consensus. Chief US negotiator Jonathan Pershing said he was disappointed by the resistance of China and other developing nations to address major issues, specifically to allow the monitoring and verification of their efforts to curb the greenhouse gas emissions that are blamed for global warming.

"We have made very little progress on the key issue that confronts us," Pershing said. "These elements are a part of the deal. The lack of progress on these gives us concern about the prospects for Cancun."

Meanwhile his Chinese counterpart, Su Wei, accused developed countries of failing to commit to substantial reductions in carbon emissions while making unfair demands of developing nations. "After five years of negotiation, we have seen slow or no progress. The developed countries are trying every means possible to avoid discussion of the essential issue, that is emission reductions," Su said.

Earlier in the week Xie Zhenhua, vice minister of the National Development and Reform Commission, had asked developed nations for more money to help China tackle emissions. He insisted China's greenhouse gas emissions would peak at an earlier date if developed countries complied with international protocols. "We will try to get passed the peak of emissions as early as possible, but this also hinges on how much money the developed nations will offer and what technology they will transfer as required by international protocols," Xie Zhenhua told reporters on the sidelines of the United Nations climate talks. "The more money they provide, or the earlier the money arrives, the sooner we should be able to pass the emissions peak," Xie said.

He pointed out that some developed countries, although with a per capita GDP of more than $40,000 a year, still were yet to reach their emissions peak as their greenhouse gas emissions continued to rise. "Under such circumstances, how can you ask China, with a per capital GDP just over $3,000, to foresee its peak?" he asked [Xinhua].

There is some hope that the meeting in Cancun might reach an agreement which would see the transfer $100bn a year in funds from richer developed countries to help poor nations cope with the projected consequences of climate change. But as Xie expressed many see this sum as inadequate.

Then came what appeared to be a trading of insults as the US was accused of being a 'preening pig'. US criticism of China's apparent unwillingness to reduce its emissions was strongly contested by Su Wei. He likened the US to Zhubajie, a pig featured in a traditional Chinese novel, which in a traditional saying preens itself in a mirror. In fact in the original Chinese novel, he is often called dāizi (呆子), meaning "idiot". According to some reports Su Wei said "the pig falsely accuses" [猪八戒倒打一耙 ] before proclaiming, "It [the US] has no measures or actions to show for itself, and instead it criticizes China, which is actively taking measures and actions." [Shanghai Daily / Business Green / Chinese: Zaobao / Huanqiu]

Whatever the implication of Su's remarks, the comments are unlikely to bring the US and China closer together. The infamous "lipstick on a pig" faux pas uttered by Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign almost lost him the election. Su Wei may have meant little by his pig reference but diplomacy and an understanding of cultural differences is all too important especially when dealing with tricky negotiations.

The head of the US delegation, Jonathan Pershing, was more diplomatic and did not refer to his counterpart in colourful metaphors. But he was reserving judgement as to whether a decision could be reached at Cancun. He said that there could be no US signature on any binding deal that did not also bind China. Even before the end of the Tianjin event, Pershing was only vaguely optimistic. "There is less agreement than one might have hoped to find at this stage, and it's going to require a lot of work to get to some significant outcome by the end of this week," Pershing said on Wednesday [AP]. But by Saturday there had only been scant achievement. "This week has got us closer to a structured set of decisions that can be agreed in Cancun," Christiana Figueres, the UN's top climate official, said, "Governments addressed what is doable in Cancun, and what may have to be left to later." [CNN / BBC / AP]

There is a great deal left to do and an apparent unwillingness by most parties to even recognise the problem. As the Tianjin talks took place, there was a stark irony as the city remained shrouded in smog [twitpic]. In Beijing, only a 30 minute journey by train, residents were choking on thick pollution with air quality being measured as hazardous for much of the week [twitpic]. Cynics might pour scorn on the UNFCCC event and the COP15 given the wasted opportunities. The events have also used vast energy resources in themselves. COP15 was widely criticised at the time for its huge carbon footprint when air travel and other factors had been taken into account. Tianjin would have been little different with delegations flying in from 150 countries around the world. It is all to be repeated once again in Mexico, and next year in South Africa. Such discussions, it could be argued, might be better organised using online discussions rather than burning up valuable resources in order to discuss how mankind might conserve energy. Yet another irony in the battle of environmental conservation.

Pictured: Jonathan Pershing, US Deputy Special Envoy for Climate Change and Chief US negotiator, who was referred to as a 'preening pig' by Su Wei [right] at the Tianjin UNFCCC event.

tvnewswatch, London, UK with additional reporting from worldnewsreview, Tianjin, China

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