China Shakes Up Cancun


China pledged to set binding emissions targets in Cancun yesterday, demonstrating remarkable leadership. After a week at the United Nations Climate talks during which the US and China kept a relatively low profile, China’s announcement that it would cement its voluntary emissions reduction targets in a binding agreement was a surprise — and hopefully the catalyst needed to push other countries to lift their game. 

Last Thursday Japan announced unequivocally that it would not support a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol. Confidence was shaken within the Cancun conference centre. China’s declaration that it would submit to binding emissions targets was a welcome display of leadership in the lead up to the final days of decision making at COP16.

China’s participation in international climate talks has historically stalled on two points. Firstly, China has always been adamant that its domestic policy on climate change should not be bound by an international convention. Secondly, China has long resisted being lumped in the same category as Annex 1 developed nations. Under the Kyoto Protocol, for example, the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities applies whereby industrialised countries are held historically responsible for climate change and deemed best equipped to deal with it. Thus, they are held to legally binding emissions reductions commitments, whereas developing countries are not.

China, alongside India, has hitherto been adamant that it should not be treated as a developed country, despite its rapid industrialisation and high emissions.This history adds to the significance of China’s statement yesterday that it would commit to reduce emissions by 40 to 45 per cent of 2005 levels by 2020 and that the commitment could be enforced under the UNFCCC framework.

China’s announcement demonstrated great leadership at a time of uncertainty in COP16’s progress. At home, China has already demonstrated commitment to cutting emissions — installing as many windmills in six weeks as Australia has in total! But while Japan has expressed its opposition to a second commitment period, and it seems that Russia and Canada are not looking to establish a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol either, China’s stance has gone a long way to reassure developing countries that the negotiations are being undertaken in good faith — and with a genuine desire to notch up decisions and outcomes before the end of the week.

China’s voluntary commitment to legally binding emissions targets also has interesting ramifications for the US. Sino-US relations have been the topic of speculation during the negotiations because both parties have thus far kept a relatively low profile. This is partly because of their respective domestic political climates and the difficulties US in particular faces internally in a Senate in which climate deniers hold considerable sway.

The US entered the COP16 process with the firm stance that it would only sign on to a binding deal that fulfilled a very specific set of criteria. This criteria included developing countries committing to emissions cuts and the implementation of a system of accountability for those cuts. China’s voluntary commitment to adopt binding emissions targets puts the ball back in the court of the US. Now that one of the biggest emitting developing nations has fulfilled the criteria set by the US; what will the US do to further the progress at Cancun?

With only three days of the negotiations to go, China’s announcement may serve as a much needed spur to action. Since day one, there has been a strong shared ambition that the framework for future progress on climate should be established in Cancun. This ambition has been slowed by technicalities and geopolitical considerations as countries attempt to juggle domestic politics with international relations and other bilateral and multilateral agreements.

China’s announcement shakes the inertia that many countries had been relying on. No one wants to take a stance unless they know they will be backed by others. Certainly this is how Australia has operated with Greg Combet stating that Australia will only commit to strong and binding targets "if major developing economies commit to substantially restrain their levels of carbon pollution". China has now committed to "substantially restrain" their emissions. Now that someone else is leading the way, there’s pressure on Australia to act.

China’s commitment to binding emissions targets has been described as a "game changer". The general mood in Moon Palace is now one of cautious optimism. As ministers from around the world arrive, China’s demonstration of leadership may be the catalyst needed to push countries to cooperate and finally to commit to stronger targets.

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