Climate Row Reopens

Global warming negotiations in China make little progress as nations differ over carbon cuts.
By Michael Lelyveld
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environment.jpg Smoke rises from a chimney in the northern port city of Tianjin, site of a U.N. Climate Change Conference.
Photo: AFP

Basic disagreements blocked progress at U.N.-sponsored climate talks in China last week as delegates from over 175 countries revisited previous disputes.

The meeting in China's northern port city of Tianjin tried to complete the unfinished business of last December's Copenhagen summit on climate change, which failed to produce a treaty on greenhouse gas cuts.

But instead of resolving differences, the six-day conference reopened questions about pledges that Copenhagen
had supposedly resolved.

"In the last year, there's been an enormous fight over whether the Copenhagen accord will survive or not," said
Michael Levi, senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

Despite the Copenhagen understandings, developing countries continued to argue that industrialized nations
should make deeper reductions in carbon emissions.

They also complained about the pace of U.S.$100 billion in promised aid to help them adopt new technologies.

China's negotiator Su Wei called Western nations "laggards" in the fight against global warming, the official
Xinhua news agency reported.

"That's a major reason why no breakthrough has been achieved in climate negotiations," Su said.

But industrialized nations insist that the environmental targets of developing countries should be verifiable.

Inspections refused

China, the world's leading source of carbon dioxide (CO2), has promised a 40-45 percent cut in emissions per unit of GDP from 2005 levels by 2020. But it refuses to limit its economic growth or submit to international checks.

"We must note that (verification) ... must not interfere with a developing country's sovereignty," said Xie Zhenhua, vice chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), according to AFP.

The United States has pledged a 17-percent drop in CO2 by 2020, while the European Union would reduce emissions by 20 percent from 1990 levels.

While those cuts appear smaller, they are reductions in total volume rather than a proportion based on units of
economic output, as with China's target.

Joanna Lewis, a climate expert and assistant professor at Georgetown University, cited China's positive role in hosting the talks and communicating its positions.

But she added that it remains essential to resolve the issue known as MRV to make emissions cuts "measurable,
reportable, and verifiable."

"MRV clearly remains a point of contention particularly between the United States and China," Lewis said in a message from the conference.

"There must be progress made on this issue as it is fundamental to countries being able to understand and trust
each others' greenhouse gas reduction pledges and commitments," she said.

Modest progress

Negotiators cited only "modest progress" on a series of procedural issues, but no breakthrough on fundamental

U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres called on China and other nations to work toward solutions before the next summit in Cancun, Mexico on Nov. 29.

"It is absolutely indispensable that China show leadership, accompanied by all other countries, to be
flexible in order to be able to reach the compromises that are necessary before Cancun," Figueres said.

Since China's GDP is expected to keep expanding at high rates, measuring its progress on CO2 targets is critical to the climate campaign.

"I don't know that it's as much about verification as it's about China's capacity to deliver on its goals," Levi said.

"Obviously, transparency is an important part of fitting that into the international system. Right now, what's more important is whether China is capable of doing this," he said.

The draft agreement last December was supposed to have resolved the verification issue with a compromise, but it is unclear that countries will stand by the Copenhagen deal.


Jonathan Pershing, the U.S. deputy special envoy for climate change, lamented the backtracking.

"What's frustrating in these negotiations is to see countries not using that as the basis, but relitigating
things that we resolved over the course of the Copenhagen negotiations," Pershing told reporters.

In the dense diplomatic language of Copenhagen, China and other developing nations agreed to measure and report their own emissions efforts every two years.

But the accord also provided for "international consultations and analysis under clearly defined guidelines
that will ensure that national sovereignty is respected."

A tougher standard of "international measurement, reporting, and verification" applied to programs supported by
foreign funds.

Now, the entire approach may be in doubt. China will only accept international consultations that are "non-invasive," Xie said.

"Within the U.N. negotiations, the focus has largely been on the things that developed countries were going to give to developing countries -- money, emissions cuts, and technology cooperation," said Levi.

"But developed countries have now come back quite clearly and said, 'Look, this was a package, and your part of the package was transparency,'" he said. "So now we're back in the same place we were last year where we need to sort out that fundamental issue."

Major strides

China has made major strides in renewable energy to reduce its reliance on high-polluting coal for economic growth.

But it is unclear whether the government's campaign to meet its five-year emissions and energy targets by the end of 2010 has helped or hurt its credibility on the climate goals.

The government has pledged to reduce energy use per unit of GDP by 20 percent compared with 2005. At the conference, Xie said the goal is now "within reach," although energy efficiency declined both in 2009 and the first half of this year, according to official data.

Last year's efficiency index improved after the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) boosted its GDP growth estimate from 8.7 to 9.1 percent in July, raising questions of manipulation.

On Sept. 18, Environmental Protection Minister Zhou Shengxian said China is beating its five-year target of reducing major air and water pollutants by 10 percent, although sulfur dioxide emissions from coal rose in the first half of 2010.

Unlike the energy index, China's target for pollutants measures total volumes regardless of GDP growth.


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