China Holds Key to Climate Change
Image Credit: David Schroeter

China Holds Key to Climate Change

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For the past two decades, international climate change negotiations have been marred by a North-South split. With the conclusion of the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Durban at the end of last year, the first cornerstone was laid for increased global cooperation. The actual architecture of meaningful long-term action remains elusive, however, as global governance finds itself preoccupied with other geopolitical and economic trials. Indeed, it will be China and the world’s largest carbon emitters – not U.N. summits – that determine the nature of the climate challenge in the immediate years ahead.

To be sure, a number of symbolic successes were achieved in Durban. The Kyoto Protocol was extended into a second phase that will begin in 2013, the Green Climate Fund was endorsed as the primary vehicle to support low-carbon investment in the developing world, and the “Durban Platform” was created to guide negotiations over a new climate regime that will cover both developed and developing countries by 2020.

Yet while Durban delegates worked diligently to save the process, it’s still uncertain whether the environment will be an equal beneficiary. The parties that will participate in the second Kyoto Protocol commitment period account for only around 15 percent of global emissions. Additionally, the $100 billion Green Climate Fund is still a mostly empty vessel, with the United States insisting on a large role for private sector funding while least developed countries and small island states argue that their vulnerability demands robust funding from developed country governments. The Durban Platform promises an apparent denouement to years of disagreement over the nature of differentiated responsibilities, but the language is too ambiguous and the timeline too remote for the Platform to make any immediate dent in cumulative emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.  

Multilateralism is a time-intensive affair, but the world’s coal mines, cars, and consumption are unlikely to slow down as the diplomats deliberate. The International Energy Agency estimates that existing energy-related infrastructure is likely to lock the world in on a dangerous climate path unless there’s a serious course correction by 2017. As a new climate governance structure waits to be born, it’s an unlikely candidate to provide such immediate change. Instead, the international community will be watching China – the world’s largest carbon emitter since 2006 – to see how it manages its own domestic energy, economic, and environmental dynamics.

China’s twelfth Five Year Plan, for 2011 to 2015, includes a 17 percent carbon-intensity reduction target to support China’s broader international pledge to reduce emissions intensity by 40 percent to45 percent by 2020 relative to 2005. This goal is hardly ambitious – projections supplied by both the Paris-based International Energy Agency and the Beijing-based Energy Research Institute suggest that this is already the business-as-usual emissions trajectory.

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