Copenhagen: what does China want?

Some of the country's top climate officials and experts recently gathered in Beijing to discuss China's position at key negotiations on global warming. Cao Haili reports.

What stance will China adopt at the climate-change talks in Copenhagen – and what do the country's climate experts think? To find out, chinadialogue and organised a forum in Beijing featuring some of the country's top environment officials. Here, Cao Haili, formerly a senior reporter at Caijing magazine, reports on the meeting.

What do China's negotiators want to see at Copenhagen? According to Li Gao, head of climate change at the National Development and Reform Commission, the country's top economic planning body, China thinks the key to success at Copenhagen is sticking to the UN framework, the Kyoto Protocol and the Bali roadmap – the two-track negotiation process that encompasses both the climate treaty adopted in Kyoto in 1997 and the path to a new deal. Retaining the roadmap, said Li, will be central to China's demands. “All signatories agreed to this document [in climate-change talks in 2007] at Bali,” said Li. “It is the basis of the Copenhagen talks and of future progress. We cannot deviate from this, much less reverse it. If you were to say that we have a red line, then this would be it.”

Li argued that the country will not accept any changes to the roadmap or let any document that comes out of Copenhagen “abandon the Kyoto Protocol”. Li added: “If we cannot deal with this issue appropriately… the Copenhagen talks will face major difficulties. That is something the developing nations, including China, do not want to see.”

In the second half of this year, said Li, the European Union has shifted its stance towards replacing the Kyoto Protocol with a single document that covers both developed and developing nations. This complicates and adds new variables to the negotiations, he said. But according to Li, China's negotiators have focused on this issue, particularly in their talks with the EU, and there are hopes that Europe will return to the Bali roadmap and “play a leading role”.

However, Li added that while there should be no changes to the Bali roadmap, China has a more flexible attitude to many other issues at the talks. “We are willing to work with all of the other parties to create more effective measures for mitigation, adaptation, technology transfer and finance – and to promote better international cooperation in responding to climate change,” he said.

So what about China's actions on mitigation? Li pointed to the positive international reaction to Chinese president Hu Jintao's recent unveiling of a target commitment on reducing carbon dioxide per unit of GDP at the UN General Assembly in New York.

He said that even before the international community was making climate-related demands of China, the country had set in place its targets under the eleventh five-year plan: to cut energy usage per unit of GDP by 20% on 2005 levels by 2010. Further efforts on energy saving and emissions reduction, he said, would be included in the twelfth and thirteenth five-year plans.

However, Li noted the difficulty of achieving more stringent targets. Much of the success of the most recent five-year plan came from shutting small, energy-inefficient steel plants and power stations. Now that these are closed, where can China find reductions for the next plan? The debate around future technical and policy measures to reduce emissions needs to proceed rationally, he said. Any further measures need to take into account China’s stage of development, its responsibilities and its capabilities.

Chen Ying, an expert from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, noted the difficulty of calculating a peak year for China's emissions. The need to support rapid economic growth, she said, means the country has no choice but to continue using large quantities of coal. The adjustment of energy and economic structures will be no easy task.

However, Yang Fuqiang, director of global climate solutions at WWF, said that China, as the world's largest carbon emitter, has to consider the pressure it now faces. This pressure comes not only from the rich world, he said. There are also poor nations that want larger developing countries, such as China, to do more on mitigation. Yang argued that the biggest obstacle to a satisfactory outcome at Copenhagen is still the United States. But regardless of the American position, China must pursue its own efforts and make its own decisions about the twelfth and thirteenth five-year plans. He added that carbon targets are a positive thing, since they send clear signals for policy adjustments and help to build a carbon market.

What did the other participants think about this key relationship between China and the United States? Li Gao said that the two countries' climate cooperation would bring mutual benefits and was significant for the world. But Chen Ying suggested that although there is great potential for partnership between China and the United States, the importance of their cooperation in pushing forward the negotiations should not be overstated.

“Some people talk about a Sino-US 'G2' grouping, as if the two nations can solve the problem themselves,” said Chen. “But it is nowhere near that simple. Climate-change negotiations are still multilateral. Although China and the United States are the largest carbon emitters – and cooperation between them will benefit the whole process – they cannot replace international multilateral agreements.”

Cao Haili, formerly senior reporter at Caijing magazine, is a reporter for chinadialogue

Homepage image from Green Sohu. From left, Yang Fuqiang, Chen Ying and Li Gao