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ENVIRONMENT: China Backpedals on Emissions But Still Noncommittal

Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING, Sep 23 2009 (IPS) - Although pledging to break away from its highly polluting economic path, China has managed to stick to its guns and not compromise on what it believes is its national agenda.

Speaking Tuesday at the United Nations summit on climate change, Chinese President Hu Jintao promised that his country — the world’s largest greenhouse gases emitter — will cut its emissions “notably” by 2020 and drew applause for setting new standards as a developing powerhouse committed to curbing its pollution. But he did not pledge to make these carbon emissions cuts mandatory.

What is more, he tied the planned changes to a “notable” decrease in carbon intensity — or the amount of emissions per unit of economic output by 2020 — of China’s economy, meaning the overall level of emissions could still grow even if the amount per unit was less.

Ahead of the U.N. summit, Chinese experts had predicted Beijing would use a new tack compared to its uncompromising stance in the past, which rejected any commitments on cutting down emissions.

China agrees that action on climate change is needed but insists that accumulated emissions in the atmosphere are the historical responsibility of developed nations, who should be the ones to shoulder the bigger part of the work by pledging investment to poorer countries and committing to mandatory cuts. So far, Beijing has refused to agree to cap its own fast-growing emissions.

But the possibility of a new conciliatory approach from Beijing was outlined by Sha Zukang, a senior Chinese diplomat and the U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs last week.

“China is likely to take a step back at this summit in order to advance later,” he said in an interview with ‘China Business News’.

The U.N. summit is regarded as preparatory for the crucial meeting in Copenhagen in December, when world leaders are expected to forge a new agreement to replace the Kyoto protocol to combat climate change.

As the clock for agreeing a deal that works for everyone is ticking, developing powerhouses like China and India have come under increasing pressure to commit to changes in the way they navigate their economies.

China is the largest emitter, followed by the United States. Together they account for about 40 percent of the world’s total emissions, split almost evenly between them.

“The pressure on China to take action has become even more intense since the election of Japan’s new Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama,” Gao Heng, senior researcher at the Institute of World Economics and Politics of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told IPS. “Tokyo has pledged action, and Beijing can’t be seen sitting idle.”

Japan, which generates more than four percent of the world’s greenhouse gases, has promised a 25 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2020. Hatoyama said his country was also ready to contribute money and technical help to poorer countries to cut emissions.

The need for political momentum was yet again articulated by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the summit. He remarked that talks were progressing at “glacial” speed.

“Instead of demanding concessions from others, let us ask how we can contribute to the greater good,” he said, addressing the leaders gathered in the General Assembly hall. “The world’s glaciers are now melting faster than human progress to protect them and us.”

In the same interview, Sha pointed out that in view of the current deadlock in negotiations, it was important for China to aid the formation of a “general consensus” about reducing emissions. “The concrete steps and areas of reduction could be decided later,” he told the business paper on Sep. 16.

Proposing to use the carbon intensity standard as a benchmark for how carbon emissions reductions are measured dovetails with China’s national agenda of putting development first. Instead of aiming for an overall cut in its emissions, Beijing is eyeing increasing the efficiency of its economy, which is in fact already a part of its current five-year economic plan.

President Hu’s speech was primed to be a major breakthrough in China’s position on climate change, promising to underscore the country’s ascending diplomatic role in global affairs. Media experts like Ma Xiaolin, editor-in-chief of — the country’s largest grassroots information portal — have predicted the speech will transmit “China’s voice” to the world.

But the promises outlined in the speech — while new — are sketched with keeping China’s national interests at heart. Beijing did not commit to any specific numerical targets, which means there is room for future manoeuvring in setting them.

“We should make our endeavor on climate change a win-win for both developed and developing countries and a win-win for both the interests of individual countries and the common interests of humanity,” Hu emphasised before world leaders.

Reducing China’s reliance on coal — a hefty 70 percent of its total energy mix — will be a lengthy process, predicts Gao. “The government knows it has got to get its action together, but the problem is that there are very few immediate alternatives,” he said.

President Hu said his country would take four steps toward greener development. Apart from cutting carbon dioxide emissions by a “notable margin” by 2020 compared with 2005 levels, he pledged to drastically increase the size of forests, increase the use of nuclear or nonfossil fuels to 15 percent of power by 2020, and work to develop a green economy.

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