Climate Reflections From Tianjin, China

Written by David Connell on . Posted in Learn, The Wonk Room

A new high-speed magnetic-levitation train covers the 75 miles between Beijing and Tianjin in just 25 minutes, as described recently by Thomas Friedman in The New York Times. My colleagues from The Nature Conservancy’s Beijing office took a more satisfying, if slightly slower, means to get to the United Nations climate talks in Tianjin. Their bicycle ride took six hours.

Much like my co-workers’ impressive and eco-friendly effort, Chinese non-profit organizations held exceptional public awareness-raising activities, using this early-October preparatory meeting to bring attention back to the crucial issue of climate change, in anticipation of the big meeting held each year in December, this year in Cancun, Mexico.

China’s role in hosting this meeting was significant. Now the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, China is implementing major initiatives in renewable energy and energy efficiency and has become the world’s leading producer and consumer of many of these technologies. And on October 10, communities around the world, from Indonesia and Brazil (where responsibly managing forests can play a major role in fighting global warming) to the U.S. and China joined in “10/10/10.” This was a globally-linked set of events joining thousands of climate-change awareness actions in 183 countries. One hopes this kind of built-up energy and optimism will permeate through the rest of the year and into the Cancun negotiations.

In Tianjin, we walked into the most dazzling, intelligently-designed conference center I have seen in 13 years of tracking international environmental negotiations. The conference center was christened last month when it hosted the World Economic Forum, and the climate negotiations were its second major event. Built in just eight months, it is a symbol of both the pace of change in China and the modernism in this northeast city, one of China’s model cities of the “green economy.”

There is much entrepreneurial dynamism in products and services that tap into the Chinese peoples’ interest in sustainable development. Tianjin Municipality, for example, recently introduced a program allowing commuters to purchase one ton of carbon emissions reductions when they buy their electronic swipe cards for buses and subways. In its first week the program has issued 5,000 of these cards for only 50 RMB (US$ 7.50) each.

This was the backdrop for a meeting that arrived at a somewhat precarious time for the climate negotiations. While the Copenhagen Accord contained a number of meaningful advances in terms of pollution-reducing commitments, financing, transparency, and monitoring, it felt like a major let-down after expectations had been so high before the conference that a major, comprehensive agreement would be signed by most of the world’s leaders. And the Accord did not contain the legally-binding agreement and detailed rules that the world needs to have a full system of cooperative action on climate change.

Unfortunately, some of the differences between countries seem just as strong as they were before their leaders agreed to the Copenhagen Accord. There was concern that a collapse of talks in two months in Cancun could further erode faith in the UN’s role in alleviating the ills of global warming.

One hopes this concern, which was being openly acknowledged by negotiators in Tianjin, may in fact galvanize delegations to bridge their differences and work even harder to position an agreement in Cancun that keeps the world moving toward stronger action on climate change and a major increase in adaptation efforts worldwide to provide us all with a safer, healthier, and less risky place to live.

Post by: Duncan Marsh, director of international climate policy for The Nature Conservancy

A version of this post also appeared in The Jakarta Post.

(Image: Flickr user UN Climate Talks, used under a creative commons license.)

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