A Bad Year for Climate Talk?
Image Credit: Flickr / Sandtsunamis

A Bad Year for Climate Talk?


As I mentioned earlier this week, one of the most interesting subjects covered by the conference I attended in Virginia last weekend on U.S.-South Korea relations was climate change. The issue of green technology was seen by a number of participants as a potentially useful area for cooperation and an opportunity to boost ties. Tied to this was discussion of sustainable development, with a number of analysts pointing out the challenge of ensuring sustainable economic growth in China, with its population of 1.3 billion.

Such discussions were timely in light of next week’s Rio+20 conference, which will gather world leaders as well as thousands of representatives from the private sector and NGOs to, in the United Nations words, look at ways to “reduce poverty, advance social equity and ensure environmental protection on an ever more crowded planet to get to the future we want.”

The meeting has been dubbed Rio+20 as it takes place two decades after the Rio “Earth Summit” was held in 1992. But although the timing of the anniversary can’t be helped, it’s probably more of a curse than a blessing that it falls in the year that the two key nations to any lasting solution on the environment, namely the U.S. and China, are distracted by questions of leadership.

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U.S. President Barack Obama is said to have suggested that if reelected in November, he will make climate change a priority in a second term.

“The President has said that the most important policy he could address in his second term is climate change, one of the few issues that he thinks could fundamentally improve the world decades from now,” Ryan Lizza wrote this month in the New Yorker.

But don’t expect this to be a central feature of his campaign – with the economy still struggling, he’s unlikely to find a sympathetic hearing among a public that’s worried more about growth than being green. And Obama won’t be getting any support from presumed Republican nominee Mitt Romney who although one of the more sensible candidates during his party’s primary process (and in his first 18 months as governor of Massachusetts), is under pressure from parts of the Republican base to downplay or even dismiss the issue.

The other key nation is China (which undergoes its own leadership transition later this year), and there was some more positive news as the country launched its first national climate change think tank this week.

“The center will provide policy decision-making support for climate change negotiations, advise on low-carbon economic development and cooperate internationally in this area,” China Daily reported. “Xie Zhenhua, vice-chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission, said the think tank should provide ‘innovative solutions’ for addressing climate change, at the launch ceremony.”

Less encouraging from China has been a report this week suggesting the pace of climate change could be faster than now than currently predicted. According to Reuters:

“The team of scientists from China, Britain and the United States, led by Dabo Guan of the University of Leeds, studied two sets of energy data from China's National Bureau of Statistics. One set presented energy use for the nation, the other for its provinces.

“They compiled the carbon dioxide (CO2) emission inventories for China and its 30 provinces for the period 1997-2010 and found a big difference between the two datasets.

“‘The paper identifies a 1.4-billion ton emission gap (in 2010) between the two datasets. This implies greater uncertainties than ever in Chinese energy statistics,’ [said] Guan, a senior lecturer at the School of Earth and Environment at Leeds University.”

There’s plenty to discuss at Rio+20 – if domestic politics doesn’t prove too much of a distraction.

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