The China Diplo-Speak Syndrome

Reason's science correspondent sends a second dispatch from the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Durban.


Durban, South Africa—Climate change negotiators here in Durban are always eager to hear what China has to say because they know that no comprehensive international treaty is remotely possible unless that country signs on to it. This is because China is now the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases—chiefly carbon dioxide—emitting more than 7 billion tons per year. For comparison, the U.S. emits a bit more than 5 billion tons. The two together emit more than 40 percent of the greenhouse gases being spewed into the atmosphere. If the two countries choose not to join some kind of international climate control scheme, there is little use for other countries to try to do anything either.

But news stories like the one in Bloomberg News yesterday have me puzzled. Bloomberg is reporting that China signaled a significant shift in its greenhouse gas emissions position. Well maybe. What I heard Chinese Minister Xie Zhenhua say (via a none-too-confident simultaneous interpreter) was, "We accept a legally binding arrangement with five preconditions post-2020."

So what are some of the preconditions? The first precondition that Xie mentioned was adherence to the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities" with regard to climate change. The principle comes straight from Article 3 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which was adopted and ratified by the U.S. Senate back in 1992. The idea is that all nations have a common interest in protecting the atmosphere, but their responsibilities are different based on how much each contributed historically to the problem and how technically and economically capable they are of addressing it going forward.

It is this principle that led in 1997 to Kyoto Protocol's division of the world into Annex 1 (rich) countries that committed to cutting their emissions and non-Annex 1 countries that are under no obligation to do so. UNFCCC Article 3 also states that "the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof." As a non-Annex 1 country, China has been a stickler for this provision of the UNFCCC insisting that rich countries do more, much more, to address climate change.

At the press conference, Xie pointed out that the UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol are already both legally binding documents. In addition, all parties had committed to implementing the 2007 Bali Roadmap, which was supposed to culminate in a legally binding treaty at the Copenhagen conference in 2009. But of course, that particular commitment was not met.

The Kyoto Protocol's first commitment period in which signatories agreed to cut their emissions by specified amounts by 2012 is coming to an end. So another Chinese precondition is that the rich countries that are members of the Kyoto Protocol must agree to a second commitment period in which they further reduce their carbon dioxide emissions. "A second Kyoto Protocol commitment period is the most important issue at Durban," asserted Xie.

However, the European Union says that it will extend commitments under the Kyoto Protocol only if other major economies, most especially the United States and China, agree to a negotiations "roadmap" that will produce a legally binding treaty by 2015 that would go into force by 2020. At an earlier press conference today, European Union climate action commissioner Connie Hedegaard tartly noted, "China has always been in favor of a legally binding outcome. The key question is: Will a legally binding deal also mean that China is equally legally bound?" There are reasons to doubt that China means to be "equally bound."

Xie asserted that countries need to assess what human beings have done to the climate before going on to negotiate some new arrangement after 2020. In this case, he appeared to be referring to last year's Cancun agreements in which a scientific review of global warming evidence and trends should begin in 2013 and be concluded by 2015. Whatever post-2020 emissions reductions targets are adopted should be made in the light of those scientific findings. Actually, this sounds pretty sensible.

Another Chinese precondition based on the Cancun Agreements is that the Green Climate Fund should be fully funded with climate aid for poor countries to the tune $100 billion annually by 2020. The Chinese negotiator also said that all commitments already made under earlier agreements at Copenhagen and Cancun should be fulfilled before a new treaty is adopted after 2020. Of course, one such commitment is the Obama administration's pledge to reduce America's greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent below their 2005 level.

So here's what China apparently wants the rest of the world to do: (1) agree that China's greenhouse gas targets can be different from those imposed on rich countries, (2) agree that for the next 9 years rich countries will continue to cut their greenhouse gas emissions under the Kyoto Protocol while China's continue to grow, (3) agree that no negotiations take place on targets until a scientific review is finished in 2015, and (4) agree that rich countries begin showering poor countries with $100 billion in climate reparations annually. If the rich countries will just do that, China will consent to begin negotiating some kind of "legally binding" treaty after 2020. Frankly, with these preconditions, it seems that China's current position actually remains pretty much what it has always been: It will accept legally binding limits on its greenhouse gas emissions when Hell freezes over.

At a later press conference on Monday, U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern was naturally asked by eager journalists about China's "shift." Stern responded that the U.S. has "no conceptual problem with a legally binding agreement" if it is based on "true legal parity for all major players." In order to have a legally binding climate agreement in the future Todd asserted, "All the major players are going to have to be in with obligations and commitments that have the same legal force. That means no conditionality, no condition of receiving the financing, technology transfers, no trap doors, no Swiss cheese (with holes) kind of agreement."

He noted, "I don't think that they [the Chinese] are ready for the kind of legal parity required." Stern added that the U.S. was not going forward with a new legally binding agreement without knowing who the major players are. "That's the question: Who's in and what way are they in?," said Stern. He said that he was meeting with Xie the next day and hoped to get more clarity about what the Chinese meant.*

My strong suspicion is that Xie's statements at the Durban press conference on Monday amount to a kind of octopus ink cloud of diplo-speak designed to confuse credulous activists and over-eager negotiators about its real intentions and goals. If it works China hopes to escape Durban without being blamed for its "failure." The Chinese have no intention of agreeing to an international treaty that would limit their greenhouse gas emissions any time soon. I'll keep you posted on how this develops.

*Quick update: At a Tuesday afternoon press conference here in Durban, activist Tim Gore from Oxfam gushed that "China has put out some really positive, encouraging signals" that "showed they came to Durban in good faith." Just an hour later at another press conference, U.S. climate negotiator Todd Stern after meeting with Chinese Minister Xie Zhenhua stated: "It is not my impression that there has been any change at all in China's position with respect to legally binding agreements." Translation: China will not sign onto any such agreement.

Note: This is the second daily dispatch from the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Durban. Tomorrow I will, among other things, look into the alleged costs of unabated climate change. I will be reporting from the conference for the rest of the week.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is available from Prometheus Books.