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China's climate change talks: What's changed since Copenhagen?

Few expect big breakthroughs at China's climate change talks this week. The real success will be in smoothing relations after the Copenhagen debacle and small side deals that are more realistic, observers say.

By Jonathan AdamsCorrespondent / October 5, 2010

A woman cycles past cooling towers and chimneys at a thermal power plant in Tianjin, the city where the United Nations Climate Change Conference is held, Oct. 4.

Jason Lee/Reuters

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Taipei, Taiwan

United Nations climate officials say they hope to get talks for a new global deal on carbon cuts back on track after last year's climate talk debacle in Copenhagen. This week's climate change conference hosted by China in Tianjin could give them just that opportunity.

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But with mistrust still high and feelings raw, few expect any big breakthroughs in Tianjin, or at higher-level talks beginning in late November in Cancún, Mexico. Instead, participants are focusing on smaller side deals that are more realistic, observers say, indicating that though a comprehensive deal might not get finalized here the real success of the conference will be in smoothing relations with small steps.

"Almost everybody is downplaying their expectations," said Yang Ailun, Greenpeace China's head of climate and energy, in a phone interview from Tianjin. "People are talking more about specific issues they think they can make progress on, such as climate finance and forestry."

Tough road ahead

The Tianjin talks are a prelude to Cancún, when world leaders will again try to cobble together a global deal on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions blamed for global warming. The aim is to forge a consensus before the current Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012.

Hopes for a grand deal were dashed in Copenhagen last December, when talks broke down amid recriminations between rich and developing countries who couldn't agree on how to share the burden for deep emissions cuts, and how such cuts should be verified.

Much of the focus is on China and the US, now the world's top two emitters of greenhouse gases. China insists the US and other developed countries should make more dramatic cuts and do more in funding and transferring technology to poorer countries for green energy efforts.

The US wants China and some other developing nations to bear more of the burden for cuts, and wants a mechanism for verifying such cuts – something Beijing has resisted.

And they're closely watching the attitude of China, the world's largest greenhouse-gas emitter, as it hosts the conference for the first time in the 20-year history of United Nations global climate change talks.

Observers say there's no sign either side is prepared to budge much from those positions. From China's point of view, said Greenpeace China's Yang, the US is doing little domestically – climate change legislation is stalled in the US Congress – and isn't offering much at the negotiating table, either.

"China can't get any of the technology or climate finance it wants, so it feels like there's very little the US can offer," she said. "It's one reason why negotiations have really stalled."

Some progress

Still, the view from Tianjin isn't all bleak. Of $30 billion pledged by developed nations in Copenhagen to help developing countries fight climate change, $28 billion is already lined up. Observers are optimistic the rest will be in place by Cancun, though there's skepticism that some of the funding is merely previously-committed money repackaged as "green" aid.

Yang said negotiators also appear to be closing in on a deal on fighting deforestation.

There are also signs that China is getting more serious about climate change, both domestically and on the global stage. The US and China have begun cooperating on clean energy research, and China is retooling coal plants in an effort to ease pollution.

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