Climate change

Climate change a short-lived buzzword

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 December, 2011, 12:00am

Tuning in for a fortnight or so of the UN global warming debate early in December is an annual ritual for mainlanders.

Climate change becomes the buzzword in the mainland media, with almost every newspaper, internet portal and television news bulletin showing enormous interest in global warming.

It is usually the only time that mainlanders get a glimpse of the preoccupations of mainland negotiators and how they perceive international climate negotiations.

But don't expect unorthodox views, a sharp analysis of Beijing's official stance from informed insiders, or even complete coverage of what's going on at the climate talks.

The media interest is usually short-lived, ending abruptly along with the annual climate gathering itself. This year was no exception.

China made a landmark concession at recent climate talks in Durban, South Africa, in a bid to save the 1997 Kyoto Protocol - fiercely opposed by developed nations and many poor developing countries - from collapse.

Most mainlanders may not have noticed it. The media barely mention the concession, which will bring China under the same scrutiny as industrialised countries after 2020. While China, the world's top carbon emitter, sees the extension of the Kyoto pact, which conveniently exempts it from accepting binding emissions cuts, as a life-and-death issue, the post-2020 framework has been of interest to the rest of the world for years.

Mainland officials and experts are still debating behind closed doors the implications of the Durban talks on China and long-stalled global negotiations.

'The government does not view the 2020 issue as a significant compromise, as overseas media have described,' said a leading climate expert who was briefed about Beijing's latest assessment of the Durban talks yesterday.

'It is rather a balanced and compromise outcome jointly worked out by all parties,' she said, citing the government's conclusion. 'The Durban talks were successful because we have won China plenty of room to develop its economy in the next decade.'

She said the government had long been prepared to accept a binding international deal after 2020, which means the end of China's unfettered economic growth, marked by heavily polluting industrialisation.

'It is definitely not a surprise because sooner or later China will have to make that move given China's surging emissions and rising global political and economic clout,' she said. 'It would be easier to understand China's perspective if we see the global climate talks as China's defensive fight. It is all about how we choose to withdraw ourselves strategically - an orderly retreat or an utter rout.'

Many mainland analysts say although China got what it wanted with the extension of the Kyoto pact, it looks set to be a weakened treaty even if it is still alive.

They played down the impact of Canada's decision to pull out of the Kyoto pact last week, saying it was a bad decision in terms of Canada's global image. 'The decision was driven by Canada's domestic politics, which would have limited impact on future talks about the extended Kyoto pact,' said one mainland climate negotiator. 'On the contrary, it will give developing nations more ammunition to blame rich nations in future talks.'

Professor Zou Ji, a climate expert with Beijing's Renmin University and the US-based World Resources Institute, said it remains to be seen what kind of agreement countries can achieve next year on the details of the new Kyoto pact.

'All important details about the extended pact have yet to be finalised. The talks next year will decide if the pact is still as meaningful as the old one or just a formality,' he said.

From the developing nations' perspective, rich nations, notably in the European Union, had yet to commit to steeper cuts - a critical criterion of the effectiveness of the extended Kyoto deal, he said. China would have many domestic challenges in the next decade as it had to come up with its own road map for low-carbon development, which includes calculations of when the country's carbon emissions may peak, another contentious issue, he said, that Beijing has tried to dodge for years.

'Apparently China wants to delay the peak time, but China has to clarify the issue sooner or later, as it looks set to be a focal point in the negotiations for the post-2020 deal.'

He also said China's soaring energy demand would inevitably push up carbon emissions and pose severe challenges for the country's domestic efforts to cut carbon intensity, or emissions per unit of gross domestic product, by 17 per cent from the 2010 level by 2015.

Despite such intense debate among climate experts, the mainland public has been absent from the discussions.

Many environmentalists say individuals and non-government groups have yet to feel the urgency of tackling climate change because they are preoccupied with pollution woes and ecological degradation as a result of the mainland's decades-long runaway economic expansion.