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China’s First UN Climate Conference Explores Urgency, Stirs Fresh Hope For Climate Progress

October 4, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

UNFCCC Christiana Figuere seals Great Climate Wall with Chinese proverb this morning to open the Tianjin conference.

UNFCCC Christiana Figuere seals Great Climate Wall with Chinese proverb this morning to open the Tianjin conference.

TIANJIN, China – In a gesture that signaled more urgent engagement to cool the planet, the United Nation’s chief climate negotiator today opened this nation’s first international climate conference by sealing a symbolic Great Climate Wall of China with an ancient proverb. Christiana Figueres, a Costa Rican diplomat and climate expert, who in May was named the new executive secretary for the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) stamped the proverb – “with everyone’s determination, we can win anything” – on a mosaic wall of 4,000 portaits of people from China and around the world concerned about the increasing evidence of the warming climate.

“The symbolism of this mural is significant,” said Figueres. “Addressing climate change is not just about governments working collectively. It’s also about all of us working collectively and deciding what kind of stamp we want to leave on human history.”

The six-day Tianjin meeting, which ends on Saturday, is the latest opportunity for 3,000 participants from 176 nations to make progress on a global climate agreement, and sets the tone for the annual two-week UNFCCC climate summit, which this year occurs from November 29 to December 10 in Cancun, Mexico. Figueres described the need to make the transition from the individual actions that nations are taking to reduce global warming to collective global steps that can be formalized in a binding treaty.

Activism Supported By UN
Figueres’ participation today in an event organized by the Global Campaign For Climate Action (GCCA), Tck tck tck, and Greenpeace was clearly intended to signal a new resolve at the United Nations to generate more political and public attention on the actions countries are taking to reduce carbon emissions. With her animated support for more civic activism, Figueres’ unmistakable message is to encourage public activism as a tool to push negotiators to a binding agreement. She also sought to spotlight the broad international support among citizens at the grassroots, including 350.org’s Global Work Party on October 10, which has organized nearly 6,000 events in 183 countries

Her tone and tilt are a departure from her more cautious predecessor, Danish diplomat Yvo de Boer. Figueres called the GCCA’s international work to mobilize citizens for climate action “important, significant, and impressive,” and concluded her remarks with this: “Thank you for the inspiration. I will take it into the negotiations this week.”

Government negotiators and non-governmental organizations said today that the Tianjin and Cancun meetings could produce enough progress for legal decisions that launch a global system to preserve forests, establish a financial system to coordinate adaptation and emissions reduction projects, formalize emissions reductions commitments, and establish a system to review progress toward those goals. The question is whether the Cancun meeting will set a stronger negotiating foundation that can lead to a formal international agreement between all nations in time for the 2011 climate summit in South Africa or the 2012 summit in South Korea.

Though the United States and China, the two largest carbon polluters, have been reluctant to set a binding global emissions limit, there is evidence that nations want to reach that goal. Last year in Copenhagen, heads of state and climate negotiators from 28 countries that are responsible for 80 percent of climate-changing emissions developed the Copenhagen Accord. The accord is a political agreement that indicates nations individually and collectively should check carbon emissions sufficiently to limit the rise in global temperature to less than 2 degrees Centigrade. In the accord, which was reached on the last day of the Copenhagen summit, developed nations also committed to provide $30 billion from 2010 to 2012 to assist developing nations make the transition from a carbon-based to a clean energy economy.

Hope and Some Evidence That Nations Are Moving Steadily Toward Big Steps
This month, the UNFCC reported that 139 nations, including the 27-member European Union, have agreed to the accord or have expressed their intent to sign on, The UNFCCC reported in March that it received submissions of national pledges to cut or limit emissions of greenhouse gases by 2020 from 75 countries, which account for all but 20 percent of global emissions. In addition 41 industrialized countries formally communicated their economy-wide targets and 35 developing countries have “communicated information on the nationally appropriate actions they are planning, provided they receive the appropriate support in terms of finance and technology.”

In an interview in March, Yvo de Boer, the outgoing UNFCCC executive secretary who managed the Copenhagen climate summit, said, “You can argue that while Copenhagen failed in a legal sense, it was a success in a political sense. The question is now how you take that forward.”

There are as many answers sweeping through Tianjin’s modern and vast conference hall here as negotiators and participants. The focus, as it was in Copenhagen and will be in Cancun is action on climate warming that can be formalized in a written agreements. This week negotiators and the world will gain more insight into what nations are willing to do to accelerate the clean energy economy, reduce the cutting in the world’s forests, and adapt to warming temperatures.

And just as it’s been in the previous meetings over the last several years, China and the United States will suck up most of this week’s attention and concern. There is good reason for that. It’s true that India is acting to reduce its carbon emissions and is expanding solar power, Mexico is adopting new vehicle efficiency standards, and the European Union invested $41 billion last year in clean energy and more than half of the continents new power production in 2009 came from renewable energy sources.

China and U.S. Center of Attention
Still, China and the U.S. are collectively pursuing a kind of schizophrenic energy and climate strategy that by necessity commands the world’s focus.

China’s energy consumption last year was the world’s highest, equivalent to 2.3 billion tons of oil, 0.4 percent more than the U.S. energy consumption, according to the International Energy Agency. Moreover, demand for energy is rising faster in China than any country, and it is the largest producer of climate emissions, according to the Energy Information Administration, a unit of the U.S. Department of Energy. And though Chinese officials say they are meeting the goal, announced last year in Copenhagen, of a 40 to 45 percent reduction in carbon intensity by 2020, an analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council concludes that China’s carbon emissions will essentially double over the decade to more than 12 billion tons a year.

At center of Tianjin, a coal plume from a big plant, reflecting the country's reliance on coal for 70 percent of its energy.

At center of Tianjin, a coal plume from a big plant, reflecting the country's reliance on coal for 70 percent of its energy.

The basic reason is that even as China invested $35.6 billion last year in clean energy development, announced closures of hundreds of inefficient coal-fired power plants, and became the unmistakable global leader in solar manufacturing, it also said it will increase coal production by 2020 to over 4.2 billion metric tons annually, an increase of 33 percent from the 3.15 billion tons the country will mine and consume this year, according to the China National Coal Association. China produces and burns more coal than any other country –three times more than the U.S. – and coal supplies 70 percent of the nation’s total energy demand.

The U.S. meanwhile passed legislation in 2009 to invest roughly $100 billion in clean energy development, energy efficiency, and fuel-saving transit, and became the largest generator of wind energy in the world. The Environmental Protection Agency, acting at the direction of the White House, formalized in April new rules to significantly improve fuel mileage efficiency in vehicles and light trucks that will conserve energy and contribute substantially to lower carbon emissions, which have been going down in the U.S. since 2008, according to the Energy Information Administration, a unit of the Department of Energy. Yet conservatives in the House and Senate insist that climate change is a scientific fraud, candidates are running this year on campaigns to block any national effort to curb emissions, and the American oil industry is spending an estimated $100 billion annually to perpetuate the fossil fuel era by developing “unconventional” sources of oil and natural gas from tar sands and deep shales that produce more carbon emissions than “conventional” fuel sources.

For both nations, the negotiations about limiting carbon emissions is impeded by economic priorities. Clearly both countries embrace the existing fossil fuel economy as essential to national stability and well-being. Both countries also are pursuing clean energy development; China produces seven percent of its energy from renewable sources; the U.S. produces eight percent.

What’s troublesome is that while the Obama administration continues to press hard for new jobs and investment in the clean energy sector, the U.S. Congress does not seem to view the opportunities from pursuing low-carbon clean energy development as clearly as China’s leaders appear to at the moment.

“A decade ago China made one percent of the world’s solar panels,” said Representative Edward Markey, a Democrat of Massachusetts, in September during a House hearing of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. “Today it makes nearly half of them. The $15 billion worth of solar panels China exported last year was more valuable than America’s corn, beef, and chicken exports combined. China is no longer coming. They are here. They ate our lunch, and they are moving on to our dinner.”

This week China is putting on display a number of its clean-tech breakthroughs in coal production and clean technology manufacturing. The U.S. Climate Action Network has organized several tours of facilities later in the week. We’ll bring you reports from each.

– Keith Schneider, with additional reporting from Jonathan Adams

Keith Schneider, a journalist and producer, is senior writer for the U.S. Climate Action Network. Reach him at kschneider@climatenetwork.org

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