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China world's best hope, worst fear regarding climate crisis

China is holding many of the keys needed to unlock complicated United Nations climate negotiations as developing countries move to the centre in the fight against global warming.

The booming Asian giant is adapting to its role as the world's best hope and worst fear in addressing the growing climate crisis. Ministers are arriving for a final negotiating push, and Beijing is playing a crucial role in the effort to reach agreements in key areas that would pave the way for a final deal on reducing greenhouse gas emissions next year in South Africa.

Chinese officials are touting their country's massive effort to break the connection between rising prosperity and unbridled use of greenhouse-gas-emitting fossil fuels. At the same time, they are resisting insistent demands for reductions from economic competitors like the United States and Japan, arguing that China is still a developing country whose 1.5 billion people subsist on incomes far below those of the developed world.

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The United States is facing political gridlock in its national effort to reduce emissions, but Beijing is preparing to launch a new five-year plan that would cut the rate of emissions growth by 45 per cent by 2020. Its massive investments in more efficient technology and renewable energy have sparked a "clean tech race" and U.S. officials are warning that their country could fall behind.

But even if it hits its ambitious target, China - which has overtaken the United States as the world's top emitter - its greenhouse-gas production would still increase by 50 per cent as a result of its powerful economic growth and rising affluence. And success is by no means guaranteed, given the massive need for planning, investment, technology development and education.

To accommodate growing emissions in China - and other developing countries - the richer countries are faced with deep and expensive action to slash actual emission levels.

But it is unreasonable to expect China to do more to cut greenhouse gases, Xie Zhenhua, the vice-minister of the National Planning and Reform Commission, told a news conference here on Monday. He noted per capital income in his country is one-tenth of the average in the industrialized world, and 150-million people still live in abject poverty.

"Given the current situation, no country can reduce carbon dioxide emissions so much when they are that stage of development," Mr. Xie said. "It is not reasonable or scientifically sound to make such demands of China."

U.S. chief negotiator Todd Stern has talked about a "balanced deal" and "symmetrical" obligations, portraying China as an equal partner and competitor in the talks and one that must make binding commitments to pave the way for a deal that would be politically acceptable in the United States.

China and other developing countries have long resisted calls from the United States - backed by Canada - that they agree to emission targets enshrined in an international treaty, either under the Kyoto Protocol or a replacement deal.

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Mr. Xie said Beijing has already achieved a targeted 20 per cent reduction in the energy intensity of its economy, which measures a unit of energy consumed per dollar of economic output. And he said the new five-year plan will set mandatory targets for energy intensity, emissions intensity and a 15-per-cent renewable energy standard for the power sector.

"You can be assured our voluntary emission-reduction targets will be honoured and implemented," he said. However, Chinese officials have indicated there may be a compromise, in which the country's voluntary emission targets would be included in a binding UN resolution.

Beijing is also insisting the signatories to the Kyoto protocol extend and deepen their obligations under that treaty beyond 2012, something Japan has refused to do and to which Canada remains uncommitted. But Chinese officials say they don't need to have agreement on those commitments until next year's summit in South Africa, lessening the chances the dispute will derail talks in Cancun.

Another sticking point is the U.S. insistence that China submit its national plan to independent measurement and verification. Beijing has said it is willing to make regular reports on its efforts. Mr. Xie said his government is open to an Indian compromise that would increase the level of surveillance so long as it does not intrude on national sovereignty.

But without binding commitments from China and other developing countries, there are fears that energy-intensive industries like steel making, smelting and oil refining will relocate from countries that have imposed carbon limits to the emerging markets, with the loss of jobs and no improvement in emissions.

Beijing is serious about addressing climate change and sees it as a matter of national security, said Changhua Wu, the China director for The Climate Group, an international non-governmental organization. But, at the same time, China must deal with many other priorities, including energy security, development needs, rapid urbanization and pollution abatement.

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"It is unprecedented what China is trying to do all at once," she said. "But for the sake of its own future, China has to deal with climate change and that is the biggest driver so far."

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About the Author
Global Energy Reporter

Shawn McCarthy is an Ottawa-based, national business correspondent for The Globe and Mail, covering a global energy beat. He writes on various aspects of the international energy industry, from oil and gas production and refining, to the development of new technologies, to the business implications of climate-change regulations. More

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