A new climate change leader? Climate talks open in Beijing this week

A typical scene in Anhui. Reuters photo

The 2011 China International Forum on Climate Change opened in Beijing on Sunday.  The Beijing forum is a precursor to the next round of UN climate talks, opening later this month in Durban, South Africa.  At the Beijing forum, as reported by China Daily,

Liu Yanhua, a counselor of the State Council, China’s Cabinet, said as climate change has become an issue of economic and political concerns rather than a scientific problem, every country should take their fair share of responsibility in mitigating the impacts it brings.  He said both developed and developing countries should tackle climate change, notably with emission reduction plans in accordance with the principals of “common but differentiated responsibilities” and “respective capacities.”

China has maintained that countries should bear “common but differentiated responsibilities” in climate change, with developed countries taking most of the responsibility for reducing carbon emissions blamed for global warming.  But Liu, also the former Vice Minister of Science and Technology, said that China in particular needs to speed up upgrading its low-carbon industries with technological innovation.

Already becoming a leader in the production of green energy technologies like solar panels and wind turbines, China is trying to position itself as a new leader in ongoing climate talks that have, for years now, stumbled over the responsibility gap between developed and developing countries.   While China has long aligned itself with developing countries in these talks, arguing that the developed world should bear a disproportionate share of responsibility for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) output, it can no longer brush aside the fact that it has become the world’s single largest contributor of GHG emissions.  In a recent article in the Guardian, the vice chairman of China’s National Development and Reform Commission, Xie Zhenhua, said that “developing countries must step up with concrete plans to cut carbon emissions to break the deadlock in beleaguered UN climate talks.”

Many developing countries look to Beijing for leadership on this issue, so Xie’s ideas are likely to be influential. Xie, who played a prominent role in Copenhagen talks in 2009, is a major figure in the negotiations, and presented his proposal as a way to break the current deadlock… Rich countries are unwilling to agree to legally binding cuts in their own emissions while those from emerging economies, even big emitters such as China, remain voluntary – but some said it could at least encourage developing countries to stay at the table.

While no one is really expecting any kind of breakthrough in Durban, it’s possible that China could emerge as an important bridge between developed and developing countries in ongoing climate change talks.

Meanwhile, reports about the actual climate situation remain bleak.  Associated Press science reporter Seth Borensetein reported yesterday that, “The global output of heat-trapping carbon dioxide jumped in 2010 by the biggest amount on record, the U.S. Department of Energy calculated, a sign of how feeble the world’s efforts are at slowing man-made global warming.”

The new figures for 2010 mean that levels of greenhouse gases are higher than the worst case scenario outlined by climate experts just four years ago…. The world pumped about 564 million more tons (512 million metric tons) of carbon into the air in 2010 than it did in 2009. That’s an increase of 6 percent. That amount of extra pollution eclipses the individual emissions of all but three countries — China, the United States and India, the world’s top producers of green house gases.

More than half of the increase came from the US and China alone.

UPDATE 11/5/11 – If China is going to become a climate change leader, it might want to start by at least acknowledging the quality of the air in Beijing.  Notoriously smoggy anyway, Beijing’s air this past month has been particularly bad.  The US Embassy’s rooftop air quality monitor – which posts readings hourly on twitter and through an iPhone app – has registered numerous days with ‘hazardous’ air quality.  But the embassy’s readings have also been a point of contention, with the Beijing government complaining that they represent interference in China’s internal affairs.  The embassy measures air particles down to 2.5 micrometers, whereas China only releases air quality data down to 10 micrometers.  On days when the US Embassy says Beijing’s air is ‘hazardous’, the government claims that it is only ‘slightly polluted.’  As reported by Andrew Jacobs in today’s New York Times, this has “prompted a public debate over whether the Chinese government is purposely obscuring the extent of the nation’s air pollution.”

Jacobs also reports on a recent advertising campaign by the Broad Group, which manufactures indoor air purifiers, highlighting the fact that many of China’s leaders depend on the purifiers to keep from breathing Beijing’s putrid air.

The company’s vice president, Zhang Zhong, said there were more than 200 purifiers scattered throughout Great Hall of the People, the office of China’s president, Hu Jintao, and Zhongnanhai, the walled compound for senior leaders and their families. “Creating clean, healthy air for our national leaders is a blessing to the people,” boasts the company’s promotional material, which includes endorsements from a variety of government and corporate leaders, among them Long Yongtu, a top economic official who insists on bringing the device along for car rides and hotel stays. “Breathing clean air is a basic human need,” he says in a testimonial.

If China plans to demonstrate climate change leadership, it could start by insisting that everyone in Beijing has a right to breath clean air and to know just how polluted the air really is.

Just another clear day in Beijing. AFP Photo

UPDATE: 11/10/11 – In response to what has apparently become widespread public discontent with the government’s air quality monitoring standards over the last few weeks, it was announced yesterday that the Beijing environmental bureau will begin allowing public tours of its monitoring facilities.  Really.  How this will make people feel better about the air they breathe remains unclear, and the tours will be limited to 40 people per week.  Beijing’s population is, what, 10 million?  Anyway, chalk one up for public pressure, since even this somewhat ridiculous response represents progress of some sort.  Even other cities have taken to chiding Beijing about the way it handles the release of pollution monitoring data.   Last Thursday, the Guangzhou Daily commented that the government’s approach essentially sweeps the problem under the rug while reinforcing public cynicism.

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2 Responses to A new climate change leader? Climate talks open in Beijing this week

  1. Pingback: Two cheers for smog | geography3822

  2. Pingback: Airpocalypse II, and what China’s doing about it | geography3822

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