Chinese ducks in a row for climate negotiations

Publication of its 12th Five Year Plan has put flesh on the bones of China’s energy pledges made in international climate change negotiations. By contrast, Congressional budget wrangling renders U.S. emissions targets less convincing by the day.

In his speech opening the National People’s Congress on Saturday, Chinese premier Wen Jiabao declared that “we will respond actively to climate change.” He confirmed that the new medium term plan will pursue China’s commitment to reduce the GDP intensity of its carbon dioxide emissions by at least 40% by 2020, in relation to a 2005 baseline.

The big surprise in the detailed plans for 2011-2015 is the announcement that total energy consumption should peak at 4 billion tons of coal-equivalent in 2015. This approach synchronizes with recommendations by UN scientists that global warming emissions should start to fall after 2015.

China has set interim targets for 2015 both for energy intensity and for the expansion of non-fossil fuel sources. The latter are set to contribute 15% of total energy production by 2020.

A further innovation is the introduction of a pilot “cap and trade” program, a method of limiting the growth of emissions which has fallen out of favor in the U.S..

The 12th Five Year Plan is almost certain to be rubber-stamped by the People’s Congress, the Chinese parliament which meets annually.

The Obama administration has no rubber stamps in its locker. When climate change legislation failed in the Senate, U.S. negotiators reassured the 2010 Cancun climate conference that the tools of the Environmental Protection Agency would deliver the promised emissions reductions.

Instead, the EPA has become a political football in the brinkmanship of approving expenditure for the 2011 budget. And last week Congress was formally introduced to the radical Upton-Inhofe Energy Tax Prevention Act which would permanently neuter the powers of the agency to regulate emissions.

The smoother passage of China’s energy strategy completed a rapid sequence of developments on its climate change position. Together these articulate the country’s likely stance for the next major round of international climate talks scheduled for Durban in November.

Chief climate negotiator, Xie Zhenhua, spent the previous weekend in New Delhi with environment ministers of the BASIC countries (Brazil, South Africa, India and China). Their strongly-worded communique will reinforce fears that last December’s Cancun conference achieved more to safeguard the UN process than any concrete agreement on climate change.

The statement was unambiguous in insisting that “the 2nd Commitment Period under the Kyoto Protocol is critical to achieving the global goal of ambitious emissions reduction.”

The Kyoto Protocol commits richer countries to legally binding targets for emissions reductions. The first commitment period expires in 2012.

Opposition to its renewal comes from countries such as U.S., Canada and Japan which favor a new framework with less differentiation between developed and developing countries, notably China and India.

The confrontational mood of the BASIC ministers may have been provoked by the disappointing flow of climate aid known as “fast start finance.” Up to $30 billion of additional finance has been promised over 2010-2012 to assist the poorest countries in tackling climate change.

In an animated finger-wagging press conference, the Indian environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, accused the donor countries of recycling existing foreign aid.

Xie Zhenhua further raised the stakes in an article published in China Daily last Tuesday. Outlining his position for forthcoming climate negotiations, Xie demanded that “developed countries should raise the level of their emission reduction commitments.” His wording clearly infers that the U.S. should take the lead.

On the same day, the UN’s top climate official, Christiana Figueres, released a statement which appears to endorse Mr Xie’s position. “Governments need to agree a way to cut global emissions about twice as fast as they have already promised,” she said. Ms Figueres also pointedly referred to the virtues of the Kyoto Protocol.

Critics of China’s position on global warming may find ammunition amongst statistics emerging in small print during this major event in the Chinese political calendar. Consumption of coal, gas and oil rose significantly in 2010 whilst energy intensity per unit of GDP remains about 1.5 times the average of industrialized countries.

China emits more greenhouse gas emissions than any other country. But its population is more than four times that of the US whilst the spending power of the average Chinese citizen is almost six times less than a U.S. counterpart.

Whatever its shortcomings, China’s response to climate change does possess the virtue of clarity. When the new Five Year Plan is approved this week, the Chinese negotiating team will know exactly what it can offer and that the formidable State machinery of medium term economic management will be deployed to deliver the pledge.

By any yardstick the U.S. position lies in relative disarray. This widening gap between the two principal protagonists will strengthen the argument of those who see little prospect of a binding agreement at the Durban UN climate conference, now just over eight months away.


this article was first published in the OneWorld section of Yahoo World News