Did China win at Bali?

In taking the lead at recent climate-change negotiations, China puts itself at the forefront of the fight against warming, but also opens itself to greater international scrutiny. Li Taige reports.

Developing countries, including China, were the winners of recent UN-led climate change talks in Indonesia, said a recent commentary in the influential Chinese newspaper Southern Weekend. But can China really claim victory in December’s complex negotiations?

Unlike earlier meetings of the signatories to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), China went on the attack at Bali. In a speech [pdf] on the first day, Su Wei, deputy head of the Chinese delegation, proposed replacing the current dialogue with a working group that would discuss emissions reductions by developed nations. It was a suggestion clearly aimed at the US, which has not ratified the Kyoto Protocol, but remains bound by the UNFCCC.

“For developing countries,” Su Wei said, “they should contribute more to undertake policies and measures to address climate change, and the developed countries must provide financial resources, technology transfer and capacity building in this regard.”

Meanwhile, Xie Zhenhua, the head of the Chinese delegation, said in an interview that developing nations, including China, should use finance from developed countries and technology transfer to “slow the rate of growth of greenhouse-gas emissions, in accordance with their national circumstances.”

Observers noted that this was the first time China had proposed substantive undertakings for developing nations and laid out a formal solution to the problems posed by America’s stance on Kyoto. The delegation had prepared its proposals in advance, Su Wei told Chinese reporters, to push negotiations forward and increase the likelihood of genuine progress.

This change in China’s attitude won praise from many quarters. “Many developing countries, united in the G77 plus China, have come to Bali with considerable ambition and are showing flexibility,” said Hans Verolme, director of WWF’s Global Climate Change Programme.

China’s proactive stance at Bali was rooted in the country’s domestic effort to reduce emissions and energy consumption. China has “pledged to reduce energy consumption (per unit of gross domestic product) by 20% over five years” noted UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon in the Washington Post, “not far removed, in spirit, from Europe's commitment to a 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.”

The Chinese delegation displayed unprecedented levels of activity at Bali. The delegation held meetings with staff from NGOs including WWF, Greenpeace, the Climate Group and the Heinrich Böll Foundation. Two small meetings were also held with the Chinese press.

China’s public-relations strategy left room for improvement, however. Many people in other countries are unaware of the country’s work in dealing with climate change and cutting emissions and energy consumption. China has “done a lot, but talked little,” admits Su Wei. The foreign press was very keen to interview Chinese representatives at Bali, but the delegation had no-one appointed to deal with the mea and did not hold any open press conferences.

On the last day of the talks, DPA, the German news agency, reported that China and India were obstructing negotiations. This aggrieved members of the Chinese delegation, who were prompted to discuss better communication with the foreign media and the importance of providing accurate information.

In fact, it was Nobel-prize winner and former US vice-president, Al Gore, who identified the US as the main obstacle to climate-change negotiations when he spoke at Bali. But at the last moment, the US delegation approved the “Bali road map”. Over the next two years, talks will take place that aim to reach a concrete agreement by 2009 on the international community’s response to climate change after the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012.

The Bali road map is the result of a compromise. Opposition from the US, Japan and Canada meant China and the EU’s call for developed countries to reduce emissions by 25% to 40% on 1990 levels by 2020 were not explicitly included. However, the US is now on board – and future negotiations can continue to take on the issue of its obligations.

According to the road map, developing countries will receive technology, finance and capacity building from developed nations in exchange for measurable, reportable and verifiable actions to reduce emissions. And thanks to efforts by representatives from developing nations, the finance, technology transfer and capacity building provided by the developed world must also be “measurable, reportable and verifiable.”

China needs finance to fight climate change, but it needs technology more. The developed world has an obligation to transfer clean technology to developing countries under the UNFCCC, and a duty to assist developing countries in their own technology research. Talks on this process have made little headway, but Bali saw some progress. There are, of course, still major differences between the developed and developing world, and negotiations will not be easy.

The EU and developing nations like China and India were the eventual winners at Bali, said Time magazine, while the US lost – managing to concede its position on the road map, while still appearing “selfish and churlish”. From the “selfish” point of view, the US may not have lost: its delegation fought for the country's national interests. But the Bush administration’s stance is also coming in for increasing criticism at home, from citizens who want to see the US playing a bigger role in international negotiations on climate.

China’s commitment, along with other developing countries, to discuss adopting “measurable, reportable and verifiable” measures to slow its emissions is not equivalent to developed nations’ undertakings on emissions cuts, but it will undoubtedly bring huge pressure to bear on their economies and societies.

China is already taking action to slow its growth in emissions, but however the climate-change negotiations shape up, the Chinese economy will need to change. Whether or not the US ratifies the Kyoto Protocol and commits to emissions cuts, says Xie Zhenhua, “China will continue to take active measures in reducing emissions and power consumption and dealing with climate change.”

However, say analysts, the road map's call for “verifiable” action on climate change by developing nations means that China’s statistics will be tested for their credibility. Therefore, China needs the foresight to put in place internationally recognised standards for appraisal.

Acting on climate change means joint action from the international community: no country can act alone. For China to be a winner in the end, it needs to uphold its own interests, make the switch to a greener economy and make a larger – and more open – contribution to the global fight against climate change.

Li Taige is a Beijing-based journalist. He obtained a masters degree in engineering from Sichuan University in 1997, and studied as a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2003-2004.

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