Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Durban summit: Is China becoming a climate leader?

Three more days of climate negotiations in Durban and the EU's hopes for a binding agreement are vanishing into the distance. Climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard already told the European Parliament in November that she did not insist on a binding agreement but was prepared to make concessions, if other countries agreed to a binding commitment from 2020 and a clear roadmap until then.

After no ratification of Kyoto and no progress in Copenhagen and Cancún, I am by now downright resentful of the United States that shot down the Green Climate Fund upon arrival in Durban and that now prefers to nag China before committing itself to any binding accord. I have laid out before my view that emission reduction cannot wait and that developed countries should lower their emissions irrespective of what developing countries do.

Now, the US has waited for so long that it seems China might not only outgrow its economy but also become a leader in emission reductions. On Monday, China stunned the world by announcing that it supported a binding agreement by 2020 (albeit in return for five conditions such as common but differentiated responsibilities and a continuation of developed country subsidies for developing countries).

The Chinese volte-face leaves the US and India in a cold shower, and it makes the US and Canada as developed economies look particularly isolated. As it currently stands, the US refuses a binding agreement, at this point as well as for the year 2020. It pledges to reduce emissions by 17% until 2020 given 2005 levels while China says it "achieved a 20 percent reduction in carbon emissions between 2005 and 2010 per unit of gross domestic product and planned to cut another 17 percent by 2015" (given that GDP is still growing at around 8%/year, absolute figures continue to be on the rise).

Even though Chinese emissions are still rising in the short term, signs are multiplying that citizens are becoming increasingly unwilling to put up with air and water pollution. Millions of Chinese citizens protested online yesterday after several days of severe pollution in Beijing that caused the cancellation of hundreds of flights across China. The government heavily subsidizes the installation of solar panels on rooftops in parts of the country and China recently became the world's biggest investor in renewable energy.

These developments indicate that something is changing in China. With capacity-building and technology from the EU, China is moving onto the path of sustainable environmental development. It might be on the way to becoming a climate leader within in the next decade. The US, meanwhile, continues to pretend that life will always go on as it has before. It thereby not only endangers its own citizens but also citizens of the rest of the world.

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