Bridging Gaps in Durban: What can China do?

This post originally appeared on ChinaFAQs.

By Angel Hsu, Max Song, and Jonathan Smith on Dec 2, 2011

Interview with China energy expert Jiang Kejun, Energy Research Institute, NDRC

As the first week of the UN climate negotiations in Durban are underway, one of the most persistent themes has been how to bridge gaps- the divide between the developed and developing countries, many of whom disagree about whether the Kyoto Protocol should be extended into a second commitment period; the hole in climate finance pledges from developed countries; and the ambition or emissions gap between the Copenhagen pledges and the stabilization of global temperatures below a 2 degrees Celsius increase from pre-industrial levels.

These three major gaps must be addressed in Durban. One major question will be whether developing and some developed countries, Europe in particular, can work together to find a solution that enables the Kyoto Protocol to be extended. When it comes to money, there are questions about where some $2 billion USD out of the $30 billion promised to developing countries at Copenhagen and Cancun to assist them in mitigation and adaptation efforts will come from.

Perhaps the most prominent issue being discussed in Durban is the emissions or ambition gap between Copenhagen emission reduction pledges and the goal to limit global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius. To help facilitate the negotiations, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released a report Bridging the Emissions Gap which concludes that even if countries fully implement their Copenhagen commitments, the world would only be about halfway towards the emission reductions necessary to ensure global temperatures do not warm more than 2 degrees Celsius. However, the good news is that we have the technological and financial capacity now to achieve the emissions reductions necessary to avoid such an increase. Focusing on projections of global greenhouse gas emissions in the year 2020, the report looks at the “emissions gap” between:

  1. the level of emissions needed to ensure an average global temperature increase below 2 degrees C; and
  2. the level of global emissions in 2020 we’re likely to see given the voluntary emission reduction pledges in the Copenhagen Accord.

The report finds that even if all Copenhagen reduction pledges are met, total emissions would still exceed the level necessary to prevent a 2-degree increase by 6 to 11 gigatonnes. This is about 1 gigatonne greater than last year’s gap, an increase brought about by some countries such as Australia and Brazil having clarified how they calculate the baseline emissions from which their reductions would be made – effectively weakening their Copenhagen pledges.

But on the bright side, the full implementation of current technologies could more than make up for the gap, and at an economically feasible price. Existing energy efficiency technologies, renewable energy sources, and agricultural practices will be enough to put us back on the right track. In other words, we no longer need to wait for the next great technological breakthrough, just the next great policies to deploy the technology we have now. The report also emphasizes the need to improve measurement and accounting for market-based incentives such as the carbon reduction projects through the Clean Development Mechanism and from land-use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF).

Negotiators here in Durban have been actively discussing the report and referencing the emissions scenarios that show global emissions must peak sometime before 2020 if temperature rise is to be contained below 2 degrees C. Delegates have been referring to the 6-11 gigatonne gap on the plenary floors and in the working groups over the last week.

We had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Kejun Jiang of China’s Energy Research Institute and a lead author of the UNEP report, about their analysis and what China can do here in Durban to help bridge the gap.
Q&A:

The Gap

Q: The UNEP report concludes that global emissions will need to peak before 2020 if the “emissions gap” is to be closed. How likely do you think it will be for countries to agree on this here in Durban and what about the time frame for when China’s emissions will peak?

A: It’s necessary for the world to see emissions peak by 2020. We can get there supposing China’s emissions peak in 2025, and developed countries will have significantly reduced emissions by 2025. This way, it’s still possible to control global average temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius. It’s not quite possible to observe the global peak before 2015. For China, emissions are expected to peak around 2030. However, if we look at clean tech development in China now, the speed is very fast and it’s still possible to see major changes coming from China in 3 to 4 years to help close the gap.

Q: So is China’s Copenhagen pledge to reduce carbon intensity 40-45 percent enough to help bridge the emissions gap?

A: Actually, the 12th-Five Year Plan was made according to a target of 45 percent carbon intensity reduction. There are a lot of policies and actions in the plan on energy efficiency and non-fossil fuel energy. If all this work could be done well, it is possible for China to do better than the target.

Clean Tech

Q: Technology transfer continues to be a very hot-button issue in the UN climate negotiations. Will China be pushing for technology transfer to contribute to their ability to help close the emissions gap?

A: There is much capital from China looking for investment opportunities, however domestic investment has been pretty much saturated, and they are now looking at overseas investments. Clean tech investment is a good choice because China has the most competitive technologies that can bring down the cost of wind and solar power. So this is what we want to convey here in Durban: it’s not just emission reductions, it’s also about the country’s future competitiveness in the clean tech sector.

China will have a lot of capital in the future, like I just said, and China is not really in need of CDM money, which is only a tiny little part of GDP. What China needs is high-end technology.

The Durban Agenda

Q: What do you think can be accomplished here in Durban?

A: So here are my suggestions for us observers this time in COP-17. First, we want to leave some more room for the negotiators. Copenhagen was about debating; Cancun was about moving forward, and Durban is a working conference where countries don’t really want to fight each other but to finish the “homework” left from Copenhagen and Cancun. Also, countries in Durban want to nail down some technical details. For example, the EU wants to promote a “road-map” this time, and countries like China are waiting for that proposal to see how much it can be promoted. If Durban fails again, then countries will start to doubt UN’s capability.

Also China is changing very fast, and the negotiators need time to follow up. For example, China expected financial support in Copenhagen, but this time, this is not a major issue for China.

Q: If Parties fail to decide on a second commitment period before the Kyoto Protocol expires next year, what do you think China’s response will be?

A: I think this [failure to agree on the Kyoto Protocol] would be unimaginable. Without the KP – the minimum-level of agreement – it would be a mess. Ideally, we should have an improved KP, both considering the needs from G77+China and developed countries. China can also compromise on some issues here in Durban.

Q: If a new agreement can only be made for 2020, do you think that would be too late?

A: Certainly too late. There is possibility for some countries to make new adjustments to their 2020 emission goals. So I think countries should start to make targets for 2025 and 2030. If those targets are made very clear, then we can start to place less emphasis on emission targets for 2020.
Angel Hsu is a PhD candidate at Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and a contributing expert to ChinaFAQs.org; Max Song is a MEM student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies; and Jonathan Smith is a JD/MEM candidate at Yale Law School and the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. They are all attending COP-17 in Durban.

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