China backs climate pact, digs in heels on key issues at last minute

Climate demands left by protesters on a model of the Eiffel Tower at the conference venue.
Climate demands left by protesters on a model of the Eiffel Tower at the conference venue.PHOTO: DAVID FOGARTY

PARIS - China called on Friday for an ambitious global climate agreement as UN-led talks in Paris neared their final hours, but Beijing also dug in its heels on several key issues, ratcheting up the tension among weary negotiators.

Delegates from nearly 200 nations are trying to seal an historic agreement to stop the world spiralling into climate chaos triggered by rising temperatures that are fuelling more extreme droughts, floods, storms and rising sea levels.

Climate change affects everyone, from damage to crops, to melting glaciers and ice caps and higher seas flooding coastal megacities and low-lying island nations.

What China does at home and at the talks is crucial. It is the world’s top greenhouse gas polluter, producing at least a quarter of mankind’s carbon pollution. The US is No. 2 and India No.3.

“We are quite confident that by tomorrow (Saturday) we will have a Paris agreement,” Mr Liu Zhenmin, vice-foreign minister and deputy head of the Chinese delegation, told reporters. The talks were supposed to finish on Friday.

But in a clear message to the US and other developed nations, he said it was crucial the final agreement recognised the different roles and responsibilities of rich and poor nations, a concept called differentiation.

“The issue of differentiation will be at the core our concerns for the Paris agreement. We would like to see the common but differentiated responsibilities clearly reflected in the Paris agreement.”

The split between rich and poor has been a major dispute in UN-led climate talks for over two decades and hampered progress towards a global climate deal involving all nations.

But the Paris talks were meant to steer nations away from the hardened battle lines of differentiation and build a more unified pact where all nations do their part to cut emissions based on their own efforts. Developed nations were keen to reduce the distinction between rich and poor in terms of actions to cut emissions and, to some extent, in providing climate finance to assist the poorest nations.

“This is the reality, this differentiation between the developing world and developed world will remain for some time,” he said.

The issue has permeated through the main parts of the agreement, particularly the role of financing and transparency of measuring national climate plans. Ahead of the Paris talks, nearly 190 nations submitted individual climate action plans, called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). 

But for the Paris agreement to be effective, these plans need to be transparent, open to review and quickly ratcheted up over time.  This is the accounting mechanism and this ensures all nations’ actions are able to monitored and verified.

China is under pressure to agree to a five-yearly review of INDCs but it has pushed back against a unified system of review and doesn’t want any individual scrutiny of INDCs, saying the process should be non-intrusive and non-punitive and respectful of sovereignty.

In a Facebook posting, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, who has been co-facilitating discussions on differentiation at the Paris talks at the request of the French government, said: “We are now at a critical stage of the negotiations. 'Differentiation' or fairness remains a key sticking point. We need to reassure all countries of a fair deal that recognises the great diversity of our circumstances in order to get higher levels of ambition.

“No guarantees of success yet!” he said.

Mr Liu insisted rich and poor nations should have different rules for transparency and review of INDCs, with poor nations needing more time to build up their technical capacity.

He described a five-year review or even a 10-year review as a technical issue, not a political one.

He also maintained support for a temperature goal of below 2 deg C but acknowledged it was important to keep sight of a 1.5 deg C goal for the sake of human kind. The latest draft urges countries to pursue efforts to limit warming to 1.5 deg C.

Scientists say warming of 2 deg C risks catastrophic climate change but some developing nations want a 2 deg C target to ensure their economies can use fossil fuels to keep growing.

However, Mr Liu said current INDCs would mean it is difficult to achieve a 1.5 deg C objective. Average global warming is expected to reach 1 deg C this year. 

“For human beings, we need to survive, we need heating, we need airconditioners,” he said, pointing to big lifestyle changes that would need to be made to meet a much tougher climate target.

dfogarty@sph.com.sg