Science & Environment

UN climate talks look to China for deal options

Environmental campaigners outside the climate talks, Durban (Image: AFP)
Image caption Environmental campaigners have been making their point outside the venue in Durban

China is emerging as the key deal-maker or deal-breaker as the UN climate talks head into ministerial discussions.

China's delegates here have said they are willing in principle to take part in a future, legally binding deal provided key conditions are met.

But several critical details of its position remain unclear.

UK Climate Secretary Chris Huhne said there was "all to play for", and other delegates also appeared optimistic that remaining divisions could be overcome.

However, difficult negotiations lie ahead on both technical issues and points of principle.

There is also concern among nations vulnerable to climate change that the pace of decarbonisation will not be fast enough to protect them against impacts such as droughts and rising sea levels.

"We are beginning to see cards coming down on the table, on the first arrival of ministers," said South Africa's International Relations Minister, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, the meeting's president.

"Now countries can begin dealing with difficult political decisions."

Kyoto train

The Chinese position is critical to achieving an outcome here that everyone can live with.

The EU and many of the smaller and poorer developing nations want talks to begin soon on a new global deal that should be legally binding and include all countries.

In return, it is prepared to put its next round of emission cuts - 20% from 1990 levels by 2020 - under the umbrella of the Kyoto Protocol, as developing countries demand.

Image caption Xie Zhenhua says a legally binding agreement is needed

Some other rich nations such as Norway, Switzerland and Australia would be likely to follow the EU's lead, though others - notably Japan, Russia and Canada - will not.

China is willing to agree to talks on a new legally-binding deal provided five key conditions are satisfied - among them, that the EU and others remain within the Kyoto Protocol.

But what is meant by "others" has not been spelled out. If it includes Canada, Russia and Japan, a deal appears extremely unlikely.

Xie Zhenhua, vice chair of the national development and reform commission and effectively the minister in charge of climate policy, told reporters that "after 2020, what we need to negotiate should be a legally binding one, or some document to that effect".

But it also not clear how much negotiation China would be prepared to entertain.

"China has always been in favour of a legally binding deal," said EU Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard.

"The question is whether China will be bound."

Several delegates have said that the flexibility China is propounding in public is not reflected in behind-the-scenes negotiations.

"I'm prepared to believe they're being flexible, but I'm also prepared to believe it's a smokescreen so they don't get blamed for wrecking the talks," said one delegate who did not wish to be named.

African soil

If the EU and China can find a way forward, some observers here believe a package can be constructed that will satisfy the majority of participants.

Climate change glossary
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Action that helps cope with the effects of climate change - for example construction of barriers to protect against rising sea levels, or conversion to crops capable of surviving high temperatures and drought.

The question would then be whether India and the US, which have reportedly taken the hardest line in negotiations, will want to be portrayed as standing out against a deal that everyone else wants.

However, even if a deal can be constructed, it appears unlikely to contain measures that could tighten the pledges countries have already made on curbing emissions in 2020.

Many academic studies conclude that if emission are still increasing in 2020, it will become difficult to keep the rise in the global average temperature since pre-industrial times below 2C.

Accepting such a deal would be contentious for a summit in Africa, the continent perhaps most at risk from climate impacts.

"This meeting is a unique opportunity to keep one billion Africans safe," said Tosi Mpanu Mpanu, lead negotiator for the African Group of countries.

"So it's essential that on leaving here, we have as ambitious an outcome as possible.

"I really hope that on African soil, people will try to go above and beyond to keep Africans safe."

China is emerging as the key deal-maker or deal-breaker as the UN climate talks head into ministerial discussions.

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