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 , Correspondent

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    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.
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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.

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."

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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.

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.

"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.

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