China: Economic woes no excuse for climate change inaction

Ahead of major climate change talks in Durban, South Africa, China's top climate official said that economic turmoil in the West should not get in the way of fighting global warming. 

By , Reuters

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    Motorists come out from their vehicle to check as the traffic stands still at a city road in Beijing, China, Tuesday. China's climate change envoy says global financial woes have temporarily put climate issues on the back burner but not diminished the need for a multibillion-dollar fund to help developing countries cope with global warming.
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Economic problems in Europe and elsewhere should not get in the way of a new pact to fight global warming, China's top climate official said on Tuesday ahead of major climate talks in South Africa.

Delegates from nearly 200 countries meet from Monday till Dec 9 in Durban as part of marathon U.N.-led negotiations on a broader pact to curb growing greenhouse gas emissions as the world faces rising sea levels and greater weather extremes.

"After the financial crisis, every country has had its problems, but these problems are just temporary," Xie Zhenhua, vice-director of the National Development and Reform Commission, told reporters on Tuesday.

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Officials in Beijing have suggested economic turmoil in Europe and political unrest in North Africa have pushed climate change far down the list of global priorities, overshadowing next week's talks and undermining plans to provide cash and technical support to poor nations to adapt to climate change.

"Climate change isn't unimportant at this stage, but it isn't so salient, and I think it will again draw the attention of the global community in 2015 after the (new round of) scientific assessments are carried out," said Xie.

He was referring to a review of nations' emissions reduction pledges and a major 2013-14 report by the U.N. climate panel.

At the last round of negotiations in Cancun in 2010, all sides agreed on $30 billion in fast-start funding to help poorer countries adapt to the impact of rising temperatures and changing weather patterns up to 2012, with plans to increase the amount to $100 billion a year by 2020.

Xie said the $30 billion commitment is now unlikely to be met, but expressed hope that mechanisms for a green climate fund could still be established at Durban.

"We understand the difficulties facing Western countries, but the problem we are talking about now is a long-term financing mechanism while the economic problems are temporary."

With little progress expected at Durban, environmental groups have said time is quickly running out if the world is to stay below a 2 degrees Celsius temperature rise.

The World Meteorological Organization said on Monday that carbon dioxide levels rose to 389 parts per million last year, an annual rise of 2.3 ppm and edging closer to the 450 ppm level that could precipitate two degrees of warming.

It said concentrations of the three main greenhouse gases blamed for global warming reached record levels in 2010.

Kyoto conundrum

Xie reiterated China's support for an extension to the Kyoto Protocol beyond its first "commitment period" ending in 2012, despite opposition from a number of developed countries. Kyoto sets emissions caps on about 40 rich nations.

"How to solve this problem is actually a very central, very key problem at the Durban meeting," said Xie.

Beijing has been one of the big winners of the Kyoto Protocol's Clean Development Mechanism, which allows industrialized countries to earn carbon credits by investing in clean projects in developing nations.

China has by far the largest number of CDM projects and its success has prompted Europe, the biggest carbon credit market, to seek changes to the CDM and the Kyoto Protocol beyond 2012, saying it currently lacks environmental integrity.

Russia, Canada and Japan have said they will not support a second phase of emissions cuts under Kyoto, saying it is meaningless if the biggest emitters, China and the United States, do not sign up to binding curbs.

Xie said environmental integrity was being used as an excuse, noting that since the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks, 57 percent of all pledged cuts had come from poorer nations.

China has pledged to reduce CO2 intensity -- the amount produced per unit of GDP -- by 40-45 percent from 2005 to 2020, and some scholars estimate the reduction could be the equivalent of Britain's total annual CO2 emissions.

Xie said China would also implement energy savings equivalent to 670 million tons of standard coal and impose an "appropriate" cap on aggregate energy use over 2011-2015.

Xie said China was still hoping to break the deadlock between rich and poor countries by urging industrialized nations unwilling to sign up to the Kyoto Protocol to make comparable efforts to reduce their emissions. It is also calling on poorer nations to make their own voluntary cuts in exchange for technological and financial support, Xie said.

"If this all happens, every side would have taken action to reduce warming, the environmental integrity problem would be solved... and it would also meet the requirements for a second commitment period set at the Cancun meeting."

(Editing by David Fogarty)

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