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China changing climate of global negotiations

China’s Emissions are four times bigger than India’s. But Beijing’s all-out campaign before the Copenhagen meet is stealing a march over Delhi, reports Reshma Patil.

world Updated: Sep 28, 2009 23:59 IST
Reshma Patil

On Thursday, Beijing will scramble 18 jets in a biggest-ever exercise to disperse rain and clouds while soldiers and missiles are paraded through roads flanking ancient palaces and five-star hotels. China is also steadily changing the political climate of global warming negotiations in its favour.

Twenty-two years ago, an IIT chemical engineer remembers how the Chinese would timidly flock to India during negotiations. It was 1987, when nations agreed to plug the ozone hole through the Montreal Protocol that delayed the impact of climate change by 12 years.

“In those days, the Chinese delegation stayed aside except to come to India to understand issues, and always backed India...,” Paris-based Rajendra Shende, who heads the ozone action branch of the United Nations Environment Programme, told Hindustan Times in Beijing.

He said even in the 1970s, institutions like IIT-Bombay had a renewable energy department with a head start over China. “Today, India has only an overall idea of climate change impact, while China has region-wise data.”

This week, Beijing’s climate change negotiator, Xie Zhenhua, announced that China had cut its energy use per unit of gross domestic product by 10 per cent between 2006 and 2008. By 2010, if China manages to make an additional 20-per cent cut, it will prevent 1.5 billion tonne of heat-trapping carbon dioxide from being released in the atmosphere.

The roles have reversed. Before world leaders meet in Copenhagen in December to finalise a climate change pact to limit emissions, India is still unsure whether the Chinese will strike a separate deal with the US despite a recent assurance that they won’t.

Beijing has wrested centre-stage in global warming talks, as it gets rave reviews on action against climate change than flak for being a polluter.

Both India and China agree on the strategy to negotiate a successor to the Kyoto Protocol in December. But China’s forest cover is growing four to five times faster than India. The government-run media has unleashed publicity about China’s renewable energy goals, building up sentiment in favour of China ahead of the summit.

Chinese President Hu Jintao, who is is just back from a UN meeting on climate change, promised for the first time to make a ‘notable’ cut in carbon emissions by 2020 from the 2005 level. But, he did not specify a target.

China’s emissions will still grow, but its “impressive leadership” came in for praise from leaders like Al Gore. “China in each of the last two years planted two and a half times more trees than the entire world put together,” Gore was quoted saying in the media.

The World Bank recently made an example of Rizhao, a city of three million people in north China where 99 per cent homes use solar-power heaters and skyscrapers are built to use solar power. At a recent lecture in Beijing, Shende said even in 1999, China’s ceremonial Great Hall of the People beside Beijing’s Tiananmen Square was lit with energy-saving bulbs.

Western diplomats and climate change experts are privately more sceptical about China’a carbon emission cut claims. They note that China’s economic projections continue to show massive investments in the heavy industries that produce the lion’s share of the country’s carbon emissions continuing for at least another decade.

One US academic, speaking at a recent closed-door conference in Japan, described Beijing’s present talk of carbon emission curbs as “heroic” and based on assumptions like free access to the best energy-saving technology. “That is simply not going to happen.”

It was unsurprising that Beijing declined to give specific numbers or dates for any of its claims.

Indian and Western diplomats say that many governments are making sweeping but fuzzy claims about carbon emission cuts in the runup to Copenhagen. There is a fear the summit may fail and countries are trying to ensure they do not get the blame. In this game, so far, China seems well ahead of India.

But China has 17 per cent of the world’s population and emits about 24 per cent of global emissions, while India has 16 per cent of the world’s population and is responsible for five per cent of global emissions. “If India and China join hands, the developed nations would have to take them seriously,’’ said Leon Chen, China Country Director of Earthwatch Institute in Beijing.

The air will be clearer in November, when US President Barack Obama visits Beijing with climate change on his agenda.