Amid Durban climate talks disappointment, China provides unexpected hope

While many environmentalists were disheartened by the Durban climate talks' inconclusive results, China provided an unexpected ray of hope by abandoning its long-time refusal to discuss a carbon emissions cap.

Schalk van Zuydam/AP
Xie Zhenhua, vice chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission and China's lead climate official, walks out of the negotiation room as the climate change summit nears its end in the city of Durban, South Africa, Dec 10.

As the world gave a tepid welcome to the inconclusive results of the climate change conference that ended Sunday in Durban, some environmental activists found a ray of hope amid otherwise uninspiring results.

China, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, abandoned its longstanding refusal on principle to submit to legally binding limits on its carbon emissions.

“That change of attitude is very encouraging,” says Li Yan, a climate expert with Greenpeace. “China is stepping onto a new stage.”

Beijing has not yet agreed to cap its emissions, but in a hard-fought, last minute bout of negotiation it did agree to begin discussing the possibility of such a cap.

The conference was saved from failure by the deal between China, the United States, India, and the European Union to forge a new pact with legal force to replace the Kyoto Protocol.

The exact nature of the pact was left vague, and even the date when it will come into force is uncertain. Washington insisted that should be from 2020 rather than by 2020, but the deal marked the first time China had publicly countenanced the prospect of a legally binding commitment to limit its emissions.

That will come as welcome news to residents of northern China, who were subjected to a heavy pall of choking pollution for several days during the Durban conference, prompting an outcry on the Internet.

China’s new flexibility will not make much difference in the near future, though. Even if the government meets its ambitious targets for more efficient energy use and boosts reliance on renewable energy sources to 15 percent by 2020, as it has said it will do, the country’s carbon output will not peak until 2030 at the earliest because of its rapid economic growth rates and heavy reliance on coal.

Chinese authorities have been taking steps for some time to reduce emissions. Between 2006 and 2010 they reduced energy intensity – the amount of energy needed per unit of economic output, by nearly 20 percent. The five year economic plan launched this year sets the country’s first carbon intensity goal, aiming to bring it down 17 percent as part of an overall pledge to cut it by 40-45 per cent by 2020.

China’s experience so far with energy conservation means that “its capability and confidence about taking more action on climate change have increased in the past couple of years,” says Ms. Li, explaining Beijing’s shift of stance in Durban. “China is getting more confident it can deliver on stronger targets in the future.”

At the same time, she adds, “the government is growing more aware of the high expectations that the international community has of them. China has to find a smarter way to respond to that international pressure, and there has been a mentality change. That’s a good trend.”

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