Saturday, November 8, 2008

China set to take the initiative in climate talks

By Chris Buckley, BEIJING, Nov 6 (Reuters)

China is seeking to seize the initiative in talks on cutting the world's greenhouse gas pollution, pressing rich nations even as global financial turmoil and Barack Obama's victory recast climate change diplomacy.

From Friday, Beijing hosts a two-day conference to promote a new multi-billion-dollar international fund to invest in climate-friendly technology for the Third World, and it wants rich economies to devote as much as 1 percent of their GDPs to helping poor countries fight global warming.

China wants the clean energy and industry technology plan high in negotiations for a new climate change pact. Without such help, it argues, the smokestacks of developing countries will belch ever more greenhouse gases into the air.

But Beijing's new demands also carry a wider message: that it is shedding its role as a retiring if high-stakes player at the table of environmental diplomacy. It wants a bigger say.

"There's growing external pressure on China and also its own problems with energy and the environment, and these factors are coming together to make it more active and focused on climate change," said Goerild Heggelund, an expert on Chinese climate change policy at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute in Norway.

President-elect Barack Obama's entry into the White House early next year, vowing greater action on climate change, will also lift expectations of China, said Guan Qingyou, a climate policy researcher at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

"With U.S. policy changes, there will also be more pressure on China to show initiative," he said. "Eyes will be on us."

Governments hope to seal the new climate pact by the end of 2009 and Beijing's growing yet still measured activism may play a critical role in deciding their outcome.

China is adamant against binding caps on its emissions. But experts shaping Beijing's stance said it could move further and faster in curbing its greenhouse gas pollution -- if the rich powers move much further and faster on technology and funding.

"If this technology problem is solved, then all the other problems are much easier to solve," said Cui Dapeng, a climate change expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

But experts said the global downturn now makes realising China's technology demands much more difficult.

"The financial crisis obviously throws everything into a mess," said John Barton, a Stanford University law professor who studied climate technology transfer issues. "It will certainly make public-sector funding from the developed world difficult."

RISING EMISSIONS, RISING STAKES

The heart of China's climate change dilemma is its fast-rising output of greenhouse gases trapping more solar heat in the atmosphere, risking a dangerous, even catastrophic intensification of droughts, floods and storms and rising seas.

Beijing has not released official figures for emissions growth from factories, power plants, vehicles and land clearing over the past 14 years. But many scientists abroad say China's output of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, now outstrips that of the United States, the world's top emitter for more than a century.

Recent Chinese studies have echoed those foreign projections, forecasting a jump in emissions over coming decades.

What to do about China is then crucial in negotiations to create a successor to the current Kyoto Protocol, the pact that spells out nations' duties to combat climate change. Under the protocol, developing nations do not have to cap emissions, one reason Washington has refused to ratify it.

As negotiators seek a successor to the current protocol, which expires in late 2012, Western powers want China and other industrialising powers to accept firm goals to control emissions.

But Beijing calls such demands an affront to fairness. It points to the rich nations' much higher per capita emissions and to their role in the accumulation of greenhouse gas pollution.

If developed states offer dramatically expanded technology transfers and adaptation funds for poorer nations, however, Beijing will be more open to compromise, said many Chinese experts.

"China may be making these demands in order to later make concessions or compromises on other issues," said Zhang Haibin, a professor of environmental diplomacy at Peking University.

China may consider earlier than expected absolute cuts in its greenhouse gas emissions; by, say, 2025 or 2030, he said.

Chinese researchers have said other areas where their government may be coaxed to accept firmer goals include sectoral deals to curtail emissions of worst-offending industries and carbon tax schemes, said Heggelund.

HARSH ECONOMIC HEADWINDS

But China's climate policy offensive faces chilling economic headwinds that will make it even more difficult to persuade rich powers to hand over cash and potentially lucrative technology.

Beijing's plan calls for an inter-government agency that will channel funds and loan support to researchers and companies giving green know-how and equipment to the Third World (See related story [PEK5034]).

But global economic woes are likely to suck away potential international commitment to fund such an initiative, making it all the more difficult to reach an overall agreement.

"Now we have to make the case that the financial crisis takes money but climate change claims lives and still deserves urgent action," said Guan of Tsinghua University. "That's not easy right now."