Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Scepticism as China kicks of the COP17

China kicked off the proceedings at the COP17 climate change talks in Durban, South Africa on Monday, but there was an air of scepticism and more questions than answers after the claim that China would accept a legally binding agreement to reduce carbon emissions.

China's chief negotiator, Xie Zhenhua, speaking through a translator, made an apparent dig at the US and other western countries in his opening speech, saying, "It's time for us to see who is acting in a responsible way to deal with the common challenge of human beings."

While China has relatively low CO2 emissions per capita, as a developing nation it is fast becoming the largest biggest emitter of so-called greenhouse gases.

Xie said China would accept a legally binding agreement after 2020 if other countries met five conditions. These conditions reflect existing agreements made under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and include undertaking a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol; honouring commitments to the $100-billion-a-year Green Climate Fund, acting on agreements made at COP16 last year; and respecting the notion that countries have different responsibilities depending on their capacity to cut emissions.

He said China had taken domestic action to address climate change and pointed out that the country plans to reduce its emissions by 17% over the next five years through industrial restructuring, changing its energy mix and following a low carbon development plan. It has also set itself the target of reducing its carbon intensity by between 40% and 45% over 2005 levels by 2020.

Xie insisted China was showing that it was ready to work with the rest of the world to address the global challenge of climate change. But there was scepticism from some at the latest gathering of delegates for another round of discussions concerning global climate change.

EU lead negotiator Arthur Runge-Metzger said "the devil is in the detail" and questioned what China meant by "legally binding".

"Legally binding could mean commitments only for one part of the world and not for the other," Runge-Metzger said, adding that China's statement "requires negotiators to drill down and look at what it really means."

Runge-Metzger's concerns were raised partly due to the fact that it is unusual for negotiators to reveal their final position before the end of the conference.

Despite China's apparent positive move, the US delegation said there was nothing significant or new in Xie's statement. Nonetheless, Todd Stern, the US special envoy for climate change said any future legally binding agreement in future would have to be agreed by all of the major economies, including China, which would have to abide by the stated obligations and commitments.

Currently, only developed nations are required to make emissions cuts while developing nations, including China, India and South Africa, need only take voluntary steps to reduce emissions.

With the US seeing China as a significant emitter, a legally binding agreement seems unlikely. According to Stern, China's emissions from its energy sector are 70% greater than the United States. A large gap between the two major economies.

The US is seen as "obstructionist" by some observers, blocking movement on key decisions concerning long-term finance for developing countries coping with the repercussions of climate change. However, China, too, with a strong economy, and with a large axe to wield, is seen as growing increasingly arrogant and assertive.

Many Chinese NGOs and representatives are present at the COP17 helping to influence other delegates on China's achievements in tackling CO2 emissions.

But while it cannot be denied that China is making efforts in reducing emissions it has to be noted that many of China's cities experience some of the worst levels of pollution seen on the planet.

It may not be lost on some that China's capital, for example, was seeing pollution levels measuring as Hazardous by the air monitoring station on the US Embassy in Beijing [@BeijingAir]. Even China's media acknowledges that the heavy smog experienced in Beijing and other cities may account for rising cancer levels [China Daily].

Twelve heads of state and 130 ministers are set to attend the high level segment of the conference, which begins proper on Tuesday [FT / Independent].


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