Game-change or No-change? What to make of China in Cancun

In the politics of climate negotiations, which are often steeped in nuance and careful posturing, it’s easy to get lost in translation. On the ground in Cancun, reports have been flying about China’s so-called “game-changing” concessions, which could possibly “buoy” the climate Talks, which are quickly nearing an end. As we’re both on the ground in Cancun, we’re going to try to clear the air and get to the bottom of what exactly the Chinese have and haven’t said in the climate negotiations.

Binding commitments?

The first “game-changing” issue regards the legal nature or “bindingness” of the commitments China made at Copenhagen last year, in particular to reduce carbon intensity 40 to 45 percent by 2020 from 2005 levels. A Reuters article suggested that China was offering “for the first time to submit its voluntary carbon emissions target to a binding U.N. resolution.”

This announcement immediately made a big splash here in Cancun, with buzz in the corridors of China potentially “buoying” the negotiations. However, various media reports and press statements by Chinese officials themselves have muddled where China stands on this particular issue. Last year in Copenhagen, China committed to make its pledges domestically binding through national law. This move to make their carbon intensity reduction target as part of legally-binding, domestic law has been further confirmed through announcements by senior officials that the goals will be incorporated in the next two Five-Year Plans.

Therefore, from this angle, these statements are what Stern called “nothing new” and “business as usual” in Tuesday’s press conference. But what some here have suggested would be “game changing” would be if China were to submit their pledges to an official Conference of the Parties (COP) decision.

In this view, China formalizing its Copenhagen pledges in a UN agreement under the UNFCCC (such as the Kyoto Protocol) would be a move that developed countries have signaled readiness for but developing countries have not. This is mainly because under the Kyoto Protocol, which is legally binding, the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities exempts non-Annex I countries (i.e. developing nations) from requirements to mitigate their climate impacts.

“Earlier, some Chinese officials were reluctant to do so because they thought this commitment would mean a detraction from the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities,” says Roy Lee, a professor of law at Pace University, who has been advocating such an action by China for some time.

However, according to our analysis and conversations with members of the Chinese delegation, these suppositions are based on misunderstandings of what the Chinese were trying to say about their commitments to make their carbon intensity targets part of domestic law.

Liu Zhenmin, the Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs and Deputy Director of the Chinese negotiating team, said in an interview with Chinese journalists that foreign news outlets sometimes falsely report on China’s position due to language barriers and translation problems, hinting that China still hasn’t made any commitment to the idea of “legally-binding,” as reported by Reuters.

Opening up to MRV?

The second major concession media reported was on the measurement, reporting, and verification (MRV) of Chinese emissions data and climate mitigation actions. Early last week, before U.S. and Chinese negotiators had officially met, the Associated Press announced that the two countries were close to agreeing on MRV, an issue that proved to be hotly divisive at last year’s Copenhagen climate summit and even in preliminary talks in Tianjin, less than two months before the talks in Cancun began.

However, it appeared that the AP based their premature analysis on softer language by both the U.S. and particularly from China, which was perhaps a strategic move on the part of the Chinese to revamp their image from Copenhagen. Then on Monday, the Associated Press reported again that China had “said all their operations, including fully domestic actions, would be open to international scrutiny.”

This statement, while not entirely inaccurate, is largely misleading. At a press conference on Monday, Xie Zhenhua- the head of the Chinese delegation and Vice Minister of China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC)- reaffirmed pledges of transparency made in Copenhagen and Tianjin. These included willingness to submit actions receiving support, technology transfer, or capacity building through the UNFCCC process to international MRV mechanisms. In addition, China’s voluntary, domestically-funded actions - which are the main concern of developed countries like the United States - would be subject to review by “international consultation and analysis” (ICA), the official language included in the Copenhagen Accord. ICA has been proposed as a MRV-type transparency mechanism applicable to developing countries that undertake unsupported and voluntary mitigation actions, yet in the view of some countries it is distinct from the more stringent MRV mechanisms proposed for developed nations. The specifics of both MRV and ICA are still vague and options are currently being debated in Cancun without much progress. Therefore, the statements regarding transparency here in Cancun are nothing new.

Some of this media confusion also centers on a proposal attempting to clarify these transparency measures, which was made by India’s Minister of Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh. Ramesh suggested at the Major Economies Forum meeting Nov. 17-18 that countries with a share of global emissions greater than 1 percent (around 16 countries) should submit actions to ICA once every two to three years. When the talks began last Monday, Nov. 29, the Chinese delegation was mum on whether China supported Ramesh’s proposals; while Todd Stern, U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change, said that the proposal was “light” and lacked enough specifics. In fact in the same press conference, Stern mentioned deliberations regarding MRV represented the least progress to date in Cancun - far from news reports of U.S. and China being close to reaching agreement.

The U.S.’s position aside, where exactly China stands on Ramesh’s proposal, which has been gaining support amongst developing countries since negotiations began in Cancun, is unclear. Shortly after arriving in Cancun over the weekend, Xie met with Ramesh and discussed the proposal for four hours. Despite BASIC countries, which include China and India, deliberating the ICA proposal, it is still unclear as to what extent it receives China’s endorsement. Nevertheless, Minister Xie did suggest that the next step is to discuss the details of the proposal, particularly on the frequency of assessment for qualified developing countries. Xie reiterated the country’s support of the principle of ICA- that it should be non-intrusive, non-punitive, and should respect national sovereignty.

So - are the Chinese changing the game here in Cancun or simply reiterating the status quo? Our assessment is that the most significant factor for the Chinese has been its shift in communication and messaging, which has “softened” their image and subsequently led to the dramatic headlines we’ve seen so far in Cancun. But more on that piece later.

Angel Hsu is a doctoral student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Her research focuses on Chinese environmental performance measurement, governance, and policy.

Yupu Zhao is a first-year Master of Environmental Science student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies in New Haven, CT.

Photo by UN Climate Talks courtesy of an Attribution 2.0 Generic license.