5 december 2011

China throws climate talks into confusion

By Pilita Clark in DurbanFinancial Times, December 5, 2011

China has thrown the UN climate summit into confusion as more than 100 senior ministers from around the world fly into the South African coastal city of Durban for a final week of increasingly fraught talks on how to tackle climate change.

In a distinct shift in rhetoric from last week, the head of the Chinese delegation, Xie Zhenhua, told reporters on Monday that Beijing was prepared to agree to some form of legally binding agreement that would cover all countries.

But he said this could only happen if five conditions were met and probably not before 2020, when the current round of voluntary pledges agreed a year ago are due to end.

The conditions include the European Union and other countries signing a new round of legally binding pledges under the Kyoto protocol; developed countries delivering financing to poorer ones to help them tackle climate change; and respecting the relative capacity of countries to deal with global warming.

Though he said his conditions were “not new”, the sight of the world’s largest emitter of carbon pollution talking openly about what appears to be a softer position threw negotiators into a round of debate about what the move actually meant.

The EU, which is pushing hardest among developed countries for a new global deal, seized on Mr Xie’s remarks, saying they showed that a strong outcome was possible.

“There are real signs from some of the things the Chinese are saying publicly that there may be a flexibility in their position,” said Chris Huhne, the UK climate secretary. He said if that was the case there could be “a tremendous outcome in Durban”.

But the US, which is reluctant to embrace anything smacking of a legal treaty before a presidential election year, said it was unclear precisely what Mr Xie meant by a new agreement.

“I don’t know what he is saying yet,” said the head of the US delegation, Todd Stern. “I’ll talk to him tomorrow and let you know.”

China’s position is crucial at the summit because the US and other developed countries have balked at a comprehensive global deal for years, unless they are joined by China, the world’s largest emitter. If the Chinese and the EU were able to agree some form of deal it could potentially isolate the US, though the talks are still far too fluid to be sure that this would happen.

Other major emerging countries, such as India, say they are opposed to a legally binding global pact.

There have been numerous signs that the ground is indeed shifting on the Chinese side.

At the weekend, a small piece of history was made in a large white tent in the grounds of the Durban convention centre, as China hosted the launch of the first pavilion it has ever erected at such a summit.

In a room packed with jostling Chinese journalists, Christiana Figueres, the UN’s senior climate official, cut a red ribbon with the head of the Chinese delegation, Mr Xie, to celebrate the most visible sign of a notable change of strategy by the world’s second biggest economy.

Ms Figueres said she was “a little bit sad” that it had taken Beijing 17 summits before they followed the EU and other large countries that use the conferences to showcase their green credentials. “But I’m trusting it is not the last,” she said.

That seems highly unlikely, given the effort that China has put into promoting its environmental policies in Durban.

Apart from its pavilion, with its glossy eco brochures and pamphlet-packed bags, the world’s largest carbon emitter has scheduled, or participated in, more than 20 side events here.

In another departure from past years, China has allowed its senior negotiators to give interviews with foreign and Chinese journalists. Environmental non-governmental organisations are also being called in for separate briefings with Mr Xie.

And more intriguingly, a Chinese representative spoke in the opening plenary session of the summit on behalf of the four so-called Basic countries – South Africa, India, Brazil and China – a surprising move in itself.

“This is the first time the Basics are speaking as a bloc,” said Tasneem Essop of WWF, the environmental group, who, like many summit veterans in Durban, had mixed thoughts about China’s behaviour.

“At the domestic level, clearly they seem committed to dealing with the issues and making a contribution,” she said.

At the global negotiation level, China’s position is still complicated.

For years it has refused to heed a growing clamour from industrialised countries to stop clinging to its status as a developing country, which means it is not legally bound to cut its emissions under the Kyoto protocol, the world’s only binding climate treaty.

At the same time, it continues to insist that industrialised countries must sign up for a new phase of Kyoto when the first expires at the end of next year. Only a dwindling minority are prepared to do this, and even then only if China eventually agrees to similar legally binding emissions targets.

It is unclear whether Beijing’s apparent shift amounts to enough for this summit to agree anything resembling a meaningful accord on tackling global carbon emissions.

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