China, EU Maneuver to Avoid Blame for Expiring Carbon Limits

China, EU Impasse Over UN Carbon Credits Threatens Climate
A coking factory discharges a plume of exhaust in Linfen, Shanxi province, China. The EU is seeking to broaden the accord to include commitments from developing nations such as China, India and Brazil. Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

China and the European Union today are setting out alternative proposals for extending limits on greenhouse gases, seeking to avoid the blame for undermining the only international pact limiting them.

Envoys from Beijing and Brussels last week joined in fixing conditions for renewing curbs on fossil fuel emissions after the restrictions in the Kyoto Protocol expire next year. Today they step up pressure on envoys from 194 nations to back their view of how to carry on the fight against global warming.

The positions are so detailed that they reduce flexibility for an accord at the United Nations climate talks this week, and neither delegation wants to be accused of sabotaging efforts to protect the environment, said Andrew Light, coordinator of climate policy at the Center for American Progress, a Washington research group with White House ties.

“No one wants to be viewed as the last party standing over the corpse of the only international climate treaty that requires some parties to cut their emissions,” Light said in an interview at the meeting in Durban, South Africa. “It’s viewed, rightly or wrongly, as the only great success of the UN climate process.”

China vs Europe

European Union Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard today said the world needs “more ambition” to curtail emissions. Xie Zhenhua, who leads the Chinese delegation, said he’d be willing to adopt legally-binding pollution limits if five conditions are met. Tomorrow, they’re joined by 12 heads of state including Prince Albert II of Monaco and the leaders of Ethiopia and Fiji for the talks, which conclude on Dec. 9.

China is leading a group of developing nations including Brazil and India asking industrial nations to sign up to their second set of commitments under Kyoto. The developing countries want to avoid binding targets of their own before 2020. Japan, Canada and Russia have ruled extending the treaty.

The 27-nation EU has said it will extend Kyoto only if all countries agree to a “road map” pointing toward legally-binding targets by 2015 coming into force no later than 2020. That would require developing nations, which don’t have obligations under Kyoto, to take on mandatory targets. It wants to bring both the U.S. and China, the two biggest polluters, into a climate treaty.

Hedegaard today said the key question for China is whether it’s willing to sign a legally-binding pact.

“The world has had enough time to think,” Hedegaard said today at her first briefing since arriving in Durban. “We need more action.”

China’s Position

China, which until this week has resisted any talk of taking on a target, signaled last week it would consider one after 2020 if five conditions were met. Xie, at a briefing today, said the “most important” issue for Durban is for the EU and other developed countries to extend Kyoto commitments. He also wants them to make good on aid pledges, implement agreements on technology transfer and other measures.

“If all the conditions are met, we’re open to the process,” Xie, who is vice chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission, said at a briefing yesterday. “For the new framework after 2020, we must continue the Kyoto Protocol, there must be a second commitment period. If there’s no second commitment period it’s not meaningful for us to talk about new framework. This is the first condition.”

Today, he added that, “After 2020 what we need to negotiate, the framework I think should be a legally binding one.’’

Clarity from Beijing

While the comments were nothing new for delegates who follow global warming talks closely, they were the most clear any senior government official from Beijing has been about the matter in such a public forum. The Chinese demands also are hard to square with the ones from the EU, reducing the flexibility of negotiators to reach agreement this week, said Wendel Trio, director of the Climate Action Network.

“That’s the first time that their conditions have been set so clearly,” Trio, whose environmental lobby group is following the talks, said in Durban. “Despite some reports that China may be softening its stance, Xie’s line was as hard as ever. It’s difficult to expect a compromise on the post-2012 framework.”

The shift in the role played by developing countries in fighting climate change began at the UN talks in Bali in 2007, when they agreed to take on so-called nationally appropriate mitigation actions to reduce greenhouse gases, said Han Seung-soo, former Prime Minister of South Korea, and a former special envoy on climate change for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.

‘Remarkable Change’

“There has been a remarkable change of heart on the part of the emerging and developing economies,” Han, now chairman of the Global Green Growth Institute in Seoul, said in an interview in Durban. China’s declaration “will certainly make many other major developing countries come to the table in a more cooperative mood.”

The U.S., which never ratified Kyoto, is attempting to avoid the debate about the future of the pact and press delegates to adopt a new framework for global warming that would require developing nations to cut emissions too. Jonathan Pershing, a U.S. envoy, last week ruled out signing up to the EU plan, saying officials in Washington couldn’t promise to adopt a binding treaty without seeing specifics of the plan first.

‘High Risk’

“There is a high risk that at the end of Durban the EU will blame the U.S. and major economies of developing countries for not adopting the amendments of the second commitment period,” said Martin Kaiser, head of international climate politics at Greenpeace. “The argument of a level playing field for all major emitting countries is just an argument of European governments not to raise the mitigation ambition at home.”

Christiana Figueres, the UN diplomat leading the talks, said yesterday she’s happy with progress at the talks and optimistic that countries can agree to extend Kyoto.

“What I’m most happy about is the very clear progress that has been made on the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol,” said Figueres, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. “The discussion is not whether we’ll have a second commitment period, but how.”

With assistance from Alex Morales in Durban. --Editors: Alessandro Vitelli, Todd White.