One Small Step for UN Climate Talks, One Giant Leap for China

On December 11, the United Nations climate conference in Cancún, Mexico—which began with modest expectations—ended with modest results. This was no surprise, given the gaps that have existed not only between industrialized and developing countries, but also within these two groups. Cancún’s outcomes may not seem that impressive, or anywhere close to the FAB (fair, ambitious, and binding) standard. But a modest deal is definitely better than no deal at all, especially at a time when the world is starting to lose faith in the UN negotiating process.

China moves the ball

Looking back at the situation before Cancún, or even during the first few days of the conference, it is fair to say that without China’s initiative and positive “chain-reaction” impact on other nations, Cancún could have ended in the same disappointments as the Copenhagen climate talks did a year ago. Before Cancún, the world feared another U.S.-China deadlock, as was witnessed in Copenhagen and also at the October 2010 major climate meeting in Tianjin.

Luckily, in Cancún, the United States and China shook hands instead of bumping heads. The compromises that these and other countries made, as well as the host country’s excellent mediation skills, ultimately saved this conference.

Of the many compromises that led to the final “balanced” deal, China’s move on “binding” and “measurement, reporting, and verification” (MRV) issues was key to the Cancún agreement. It not only demonstrated the Chinese delegation’s smarter negotiating tactics than in the past, but also showed the world that China, the world’s biggest consumer of energy and emitter of greenhouse gases (GHG), is willing to take seriously its international responsibility. And it is doing so despite the many challenges it faces domestically in meeting this obligation—including, in the short term, the lack of unified and reliable statistical data.

A smart move

The United States and China have “cooperated” on climate before, including at the end of the Copenhagen conference when U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao met behind closed doors with leaders from the other BASIC countries (Brazil, India, and South Africa) to pen “the wording of some key issues,” a document that was later fleshed out as the Copenhagen Accord.

But the Copenhagen conference, which lacked both binding commitments and inclusive and transparent processes, was widely viewed as, if not a total failure, then a huge disappointment. So why was the Cancún result so different, and hailed as a triumph for global cooperation?

The answer lies in numerous factors. But one important element is clear: instead of retreating to their own comfort zones and reaching “agreement” to do basically nothing, the key negotiating countries showed positive signs of moving forward. This was especially the case with China, when chief negotiator Xie Zhenhua declared his government’s willingness to make its previously announced 2020 target for reducing carbon intensity 40–45 percent below the 2005 level an internationally binding goal.

This was a smart move for the Chinese delegation, especially when compared to its performance at Copenhagen, where it helped craft the Accord but also ended up taking the blame for blocking globally binding targets. This time, the Chinese did not want to give the world the impression that they were shrugging off their responsibility.

One issue of ongoing global concern has been how to verify China’s mitigation efforts if they are not subject to any international scrutiny. However, as seen in the Chinese government’s strong efforts to accomplish its 2010 goal of reducing energy intensity 20 percent from the 2005 level, China has never intended to back down on its pledges simply because of the domestically binding nature of the target.

Consider, for example, Canada’s continuingly rising emissions, which are leading that country even further from its Kyoto Protocol commitment to reduce domestic emissions 6 percent below the 1990 level by 2012. By comparison, China now appears to be more serious about achieving its emissions targets. Since the Chinese government has already pledged to achieve the 2020 mitigation goal domestically—and to meet this target as vigorously as it did its 2010 energy intensity target—making the 2020 climate target internationally binding doesn’t require much extra political ambition or willingness, from China’s point of view. 

Rather, China now recognizes that committing to this same target under an international framework will help it build more political momentum domestically, which in turn could further ensure accomplishment of the goal. As history has shown, when China’s national reputation is at stake, the Chinese are more united and determined about what they need to do.

Domestic challenges

To meet its new internationally binding commitment, the Chinese government will need to fulfill a range of requirements. In the short term, the most imminent task is to increase transparency of the country’s climate change efforts. Although detailed rules have yet to be fleshed out regarding what “internationally binding “actually means for developing countries, future requirements for MRV on China’s mitigation actions are likely to follow the “international consultation and analysis” (ICA) standard designed for developing nations.

One basic element of this institutional requirement would be a unified system for statistical data collection. The international community has long been concerned about the quality of China’s official numbers. Recent WikiLeaks information revealed that even China’s top political leaders are not confident about the statistics released by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), especially regarding the nation’s GDP figures. The same suspicion holds true for climate and energy-related data. 

China’s binding 2020 target for carbon intensity is based on the nation’s progress in major statistical areas, such as nationwide carbon dioxide emissions and annual GDP data. Thus, the building of the country’s MRV infrastructure, like the improvement of the domestic statistics system, represents a considerable challenge. 

Even without the new international pressure, the Chinese government has felt the urgency to standardize its statistical systems, especially between the national and local levels. National decision makers have come to realize that no effective policy implementation can occur without having the correct information in the first place. In view of this, the building of domestic MRV infrastructure not only will help China better prepare for future international scrutiny, but also could improve the effectiveness of governmental management.

The Chinese government could and should turn the challenge it now faces from international MRV requirements into an opportunity for building a more accountable governance system. If done smoothly, this would be a giant leap forward for China that provides momentum well beyond the climate change arena.

The way forward

As a recent Worldwatch Institute report describes, China is investing great effort in building a low-carbon economy and has achieved remarkable growth in its renewable energy and energy efficiency sectors. If the Chinese government is dedicated to continuing its green transition, then it need not fear international scrutiny of its climate mitigation actions.

Indeed, it would make much more sense for China to embrace the international standard, which could provide an opportunity for the country to showcase its achievements in pursuing a low-carbon growth path. It would also be an opportunity for China to consolidate and systematize its domestic policies for energy conservation and emission reduction. In short, international commitment and the follow-up requirements could be well integrated with China’s intrinsic needs to clean its energy supply and build a green economy.

Several countries are already taking the initiative to pursue such forward-looking paths. At the Cancún conference, as Worldwatch Chris Flavin has noted, South Korea seized the opportunity to highlight its comprehensive new “Green Growth” strategy, which could be a model for the sustainable development of other developing countries. If China had similar ambitions to seize the “early mover” advantage and to pioneer the low-carbon, green industries of the future, it could—and has the ability to—embrace the same “just-do-it” approach and turn the external pressure it now faces on GHG mitigation into an internal green-growth incentive.

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