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.
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In Copenhagen, where China took much of the blame for the breakdown in talks, Beijing learned that it has new-found responsibilities as a major world player, said Yang.Skip to next paragraph
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"China came to understand that given the scale of the country, there's simply no way it can hide – you're either the leader or you will be blamed," Yang said. "By hosting this meeting, it sends a strong signal that China is thinking about how to play a more proactive role on the international stage."
Ma Jun, director of the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, said in a phone interview that China has a strong domestic motivation to curb emissions, especially from its coal plants, which still supply 80 percent of its electricity, according to the World Resources Institute.
Greenpeace China has estimated that there are more than 1,400 coal-fired power plants in China producing over 375 million tons of coal ash a year.
"We understand that if we don't change our current way of inefficient growth model, then China will sooner or later face a very severe energy security challenge," said Ma. "Our current way of growth also generates a massive amount of pollution, which we cannot afford."
Ma noted that China is now the world's leading investor in renewable energy, but said "it's not enough." He said better enforcement was needed to rein in emissions and curb construction of new coal-powered plants, and that the Chinese public needed to be better informed about "the true environmental and social cost of coal mining and coal burning."
Alternatives to a deal
Ma said many obstacles remained for a global deal, including America's failure to take a "proactive" stance on the issue. US greenhouse-gas emissions increased 16 percent from 1990 to 2006, according to a 2007 study by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency.
Given such challenges, he said the world should explore alternatives to an elusive UN-backed global deal, which might not even prove effective. Worldwide emissions have ballooned 25 percent since the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated, according to a World Bank report last year.
One avenue some environmental groups are exploring, Ma said, was corporate carbon disclosure projects, which could allow consumers to apply economic pressure on big polluting businesses to cut carbon emissions throughout their supply chains. "That could serve as a kind of feasible alternative if we can't reach an intergovernmental agreement," said Ma.
China surpassed the US as the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases in 2007, and each country now produces about 20 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, according to the World Resources Institute.
But China's per-person emissions are only about a quarter that of the US 70 percent of China's energy demand comes from the industrial sector, while private consumption accounts for most of the energy demand in the US, according to the Institute. Private energy demand is expected to skyrocket in China in the coming years as the middle class swells and car sales boom.
China is a major investor in hydro, wind, nuclear, solar, and other renewable power sources, and aims for 15 percent of its energy needs to come from such sources by 2020. The US has no such national goal, though some states like California have set their own targets.
China and other developing countries have pledged to curb the growth of their carbon emissions, rather than promise absolute cuts. Those targets "should be understood in the context of the development stage in China," where 150 million people still live in poverty, Stanley So, manager of Oxfam Hong Kong's Economic Justice Campaign, wrote in an e-mail.
China's per-person GDP is $3,700, compared to more than $46,000 in the US.
"It is a compromise between development and the climate change challenge," Mr. So said, of China's target.