September 22, 2009 / 12:36 AM / 10 years ago

Q+A: China's Hu to present climate plan to U.N

BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese President Hu Jintao will unveil new plans for tackling global warming at a U.N. summit on climate change on Tuesday, one of the country’s top negotiators said last week.

In December, climate officials will gather for U.N.-led talks in the Danish capital, Copenhagen, to try to agree on a framework global deal on global warming to replace the Kyoto Protocol.

But key players say the outcome of the fraught negotiations is hanging in the balance and may depend on the efforts of world leaders at the U.N. gathering.

Below are some questions and answers about what Hu might lay out, and China’s wider position on climate change.

HOW SIGNIFICANT IS HU’S SPEECH?

China’s senior climate envoy, Xie Zhenhua, said Hu’s speech will be “important” and lay out “the next policies, measures and actions that China is going to take,” but declined to give details.

Previous official statements on climate change suggest that Hu could potentially lay out new initiatives, offer to extend current ones, or repackage existing energy-saving programs in the wrapping of climate change.

But regardless of its content, his decision to give a high-profile speech to the U.N. summit is a mark of how quickly climate change has risen as a priority for China’s leaders.

Less than half a decade ago the issue barely registered with top officials, but now they are both worried about the effects of global warming on their country and dealing with heavy international pressure to start cutting emissions soon.

WILL CHINA COMMIT TO EMISSIONS CAPS?

No. China has repeatedly rejected calls for it to commit to a peak year or level of emissions, saying it must put economic development first, with millions still living in deep poverty.

Some Chinese experts have said their nation’s emissions could peak around 2030-35, with enough spending and the right policies. [ID:nPEK276833] But officials have been more wary of such ideas.

Do not expect Hu to take up that date. At most, he could indicate that his government may consider a cap when China has reached a certain level of development.

Under the Kyoto Protocol and United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which currently govern global efforts to fight global warming, developing countries do not have any binding obligations to cap emissions.

WHAT NEW STEPS COULD IT TAKE?

Much speculation has focused on the possibility that Hu will announce some form of carbon intensity target — the amount of carbon emitted from carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas from burning fossil fuels, for each unit of national income earned.

China has been cutting energy intensity since 2005 and is expected to include a carbon intensity goal in a new “five-year plan” for development from 2011 to 2015.

If that target is already set, Hu could burnish China’s image going into the Copenhagen talks by announcing it now, rather than waiting for the unveiling of the plan next year.

That would still leave many elements up for negotiation, such as how China’s domestic goals could fit into an international agreement and how to measure the absolute emissions savings achieved under those goals.

WHAT DOES CHINA WANT FROM A NEW CLIMATE DEAL?

China is very vulnerable to climate change. It already has low per capita levels of water and arable land compared to the global average, and has recorded above-average rises in temperature over recent decades.

So it is keen to agree to a deal, but wants greater commitment from developed nations to cut their own emissions and pay for cleaner growth in developing nations. Rich countries have an obligation because they enjoyed emissions-intensive industrialization for decades, Beijing argues.

China has also secured massive inflows of investment under a Kyoto Protocol scheme allowing rich nations to pay for emissions cuts in poor nations, and wants to see that continue.

WHAT WOULD CHINA GAIN FROM LAYING OUT ITS CARDS?

If China makes a strong commitment to some kind of action, it will deflect some criticism that Beijing is not doing enough to control its emissions.

China’s team were widely praised for their constructive approach at the last major talks two years ago, and are likely keen to repeat the experience given their sensitivity to international public opinion. If Copenhagen fails to achieve real agreement, Beijing wants to avoid becoming the focus of blame.

Also if China’s negotiators go into talks with a bottom line laid out by their president at a major international forum, it will be much easier for them to refuse to budge.

When U.S. President Barack Obama visits China in November, climate change will also be a focus, and the two sides may announce an agreement on the issue.

But China never likes to be seen as making concessions to Washington when setting policy, so it may make sense for Hu to signal his position at this earlier international meeting.

If the move is seen as too small or half-hearted, however, it could bolster animosity toward China among groups that think the emerging economy is not doing enough to curb emissions.

Editing by Jonathon Burch

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