Planning agency’s Zhang Yong to lead China in crucial Paris climate talks

Challenging tasks ahead for former food and drug safety chief Zhang Yong, appointed to lead China in crucial negotiations in Paris

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 March, 2015, 4:44pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 March, 2015, 1:56am

Former food and drug safety chief Zhang Yong will lead China in talks on a crucial global climate change deal that is set to be reached in Paris in December, the country's former top negotiator Xie Zhenhua told the South China Morning Post yesterday.

"Zhang has already been appointed. He will oversee the climate change issues and lead the negotiation," Xie told Post on the sidelines of the annual session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.

More than 180 nations are expected to reach a new deal to tackle global warming after 2020 at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris in December. The European Union has made an official offer to cut carbon emissions by at least 40 per cent from 1990 levels by 2030.

Zhang's appointment as deputy director of the National Development and Reform Commission, the nation's top planning agency, was announced last month.

He had served as the State Council's deputy secretary general since 2003, oversaw the council's food safety commission from 2010, and was appointed head of the China Food and Drug Administration in 2013.

Zhang had no experience in climate negotiations, but the personnel change would "make no real difference as it will not change China's negotiation stance", a member of China's climate negotiation delegation said on condition of anonymity.

But Greenpeace senior climate and energy campaigner Li Shuo said the change, only months ahead of the Paris talks, was a surprising move for many global political watchers as there were "practical concerns".

One direct impact, Li said, was that China might have to delay the submission of its national contributions - what it pledges to do after 2020 - for a few weeks.

"It would also take time for Zhang to build trust with his counterparts from other countries," he said.

"The first few meetings between two people are usually ceremonial and may touch on nothing substantial … especially in international negotiations where you represent a country. But there's not much time left.

"It will be quite challenging for Zhang to pick up such a technical and complicated issue."

China Carbon Forum vice-chairman Dimitri De Boer said: "Although a bit surprising, the appointment must have been carefully deliberated by the country's top leaders. I believe it will bring fresh changes."

China signed a "historic pact" with the United States in November, with China agreeing that its greenhouse-gas emissions would peak by around 2030, and non-fossil fuels would generate 20 per cent of its energy by the same deadline.

Since 2007, Xie has led all of China's UN climate talks and has built strong personal relationships with top negotiators in other countries, such as his US counterpart Todd Stern.

The former top negotiator reached the retirement age of 65 late last year and retired as NDRC deputy director early this year. He was then appointed vice-chairman of the Population, Resources and Environment Committee under the CPPCC.

Asked if he was disappointed at not being able to lead the Paris negotiations - where nations are expected to reach a new deal to fight climate change after 2020 - Xie said: "I do not feel disappointed. There's always going to be a change when new cadres replace the old."