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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

China Rising

Air Date: Week of

Tianjin Meijiang Convention and Exhibition Center Tianjin, China. (UNFCCC)

After the last UN climate talks in Copenhagen, many people had low expectations for a future agreement on greenhouse gas emissions. But since then, China has emerged as a climate leader by creating strict domestic emissions standards and hosting a new round of negotiations. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Barbara Finamore, the China Program Director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, about China’s new role as a world leader on climate change.



GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. Last year at the UN climate talks in Copenhagen nations failed to agree to a new treaty limiting greenhouse gases. Now Christiana Figueres, the new head of the UN climate process, is lowering expectations for future negotiations.

FIGURES: One of the major mistakes that we all bought into is the myth of the big bang theory in climate. But what is clear is that this planet is not going to be saved by any big bang agreement. Not in Copenhagen, not this year, not next year.

GELLERMAN: And not in Tianjin China, where Figueres and negotiators are meeting at the moment. This is the first time China’s hosting climate talks, and it’s the last meeting before the big UN meeting in Cancun later this year. Barbara Finamore, China Program Director for the Natural Resources Defense Council says the China site has symbolic and substantial meaning.

FINAMORE: To my mind this is a significant signal by China that it wants to play an active and responsible role in the ongoing climate negotiations. I think others, after Copenhagen, had questions about China’s role. So, I believe this is an effort for China to project its image as a country who is seriously committed to the international negotiations and to reducing its own carbon emissions.

The highlighted area is Tianjin, China, where climate negotiations are occurring.

GELLERMAN: Well, China has recently become the world’s number one emitter of greenhouse gasses, and it does have a very ambitious set of targets, but they’re not the traditional targets that we’ve come to understand. These are different.

FINAMORE: That’s right, these are carbon intensity targets, which are a commitment to reduce carbon emissions per unit of GDP. What’s very difficult for a rapidly developing economy like China to set absolute targets because of the uncertainty surrounding its economic growth. But they believe that this target will allow them to slow down the growth in its carbon emissions while continuing to allow it to develop its economy where so many people are still earning the average of two dollars U.S. a day.

GELLERMAN: I understand there’s upcoming discussions in China about having a cap and trade program, and a carbon tax, both things which seem politically DOA (dead on arrival) in the United States at this point.

FINAMORE: Isn’t that interesting? In China it is in fact the subject of an intense debate because many experts believe that that’s an efficient way to cut carbon emissions in various sectors. They have, in fact, done something else that is, as you say, DOA in the United States, they raised the gasoline tax as a way to cut the carbon emissions from the rapidly growing transportation sector.

GELLERMAN: So what they’re doing nationally has almost nothing to do with the pressure from the international community. They’re changing their economy over to a clean economy, because it’s good business.

FINAMORE: Because it’s good business. They also feel it’s important to cut the serious health impacts from China’s heavy reliance on coal. They’re also looking at the United States and seeing our growing dependence on foreign sources of oil. They are trying to avoid that situation and to ensure their own energy independence.

GELLERMAN: Is China not just showing that it’s committed to the UN process, but is it assuming a leadership position now that the United States has seemingly backed off of the UN process?

Tianjin Meijiang Convention and Exhibition Center Tianjin, China. (UNFCCC)

FINAMORE: China would like to assert its leadership position. I think that’s one of the reasons why it has offered to host this meeting. But on the other hand, it has also taken a role as a leader of the developing world, the G77, as it were. For example, China is pushing for more details on how the funding for financial and technical assistance to developing countries are going to be managed. So that is really the main form of leadership that China is trying to assert.

GELLERMAN: Many people look back on the Copenhagen meeting which had hoped to come up with an international treaty, did not, came up the accord, which the United States pushed which was a voluntary set of standards, Copenhagen was seen as a make-or-break kind of deal, and it seemed to be broke. What are the expectations looking forward for Cancun.

FINAMORE: I think the expectations for Copenhagen were a bit unrealistic. Most countries and most experts have come to realize now that the way to make progress is to break the problem apart into segments and to work together in smaller groups to reach agreements on the various complex issues that are involved.

GELLERMAN: Ms. Finamore, I think many people who hear conversations about climate change negotiations, their eyes just kind of glaze over. There’s stuff just kind of happening out there and it’s not consequential, and it’s filled with acronyms and details and specifics.

FINAMORE: (Laughs). That may be true. I think that for people like that it’s interesting for them to realize that it’s not an abstract concept. I think it’s also important for people to realize that the whole clean energy market, which some estimates have shown will be a thirteen trillion dollar market, it’s the most rapidly growing new sector in the world, is going to depend on how well they put the rules in place in their country to put a price on carbon, and to adopt aggressive policies for efficiency and renewables- that’s what I think the US needs to realize.

China is the host of the current climate talks. (Wikimedia commons)

But I would like to point out that it’s really not a situation, I think, where one country will win at the expense of the other. The U.S. and the rest of the world has a stake in helping China to move away from coal and reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. We stand to benefit. Both countries have much to learn from each other, both countries have much to benefit. If China is able to move ahead with its clean energy, renewable energy, it brings down the cost for the rest of the world, and enables these new technologies to compete with the real culprit here, the fossil fuel industry.

GELLERMAN: Barbara Finamore is China Program Director in Beijing for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Ms. Finamore, thanks again.

FINAMORE: My pleasure, thank you.



Visit the NRDC’s China page

Visit the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change page


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