Tales from Tianjin

Guest post by Angel Hsu, doctoral student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

I’m blogging live from the Tianjin intersessional meetings of the United Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the last stop on the way to the big Conference of Parties (COP-16) meeting in Cancun, Mexico this November.

The mere fact that China is hosting this meeting is significant for several reasons. This is the first time China is playing host to the UNFCCC climate negotiations, signaling its commitment to the UNFCCC process and the issue of climate change itself.  As the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, China continues to demonstrate recognition of its role in the global problem of climate change, hosting the intercessional meetings during its national day holiday – a fitting time for China to demonstrate its nationalism and rising leadership in the climate debates. For many, as NRDC’s Jake Schmidt argues, attending the talks in Tianjin will allow first-hand experience of China’s clean-energy revolution and actions on climate change.

The main charge of delegates here in Tianjin is to narrow down the set of options available on the table. As Jennifer Morgan, who heads the Climate Change and Energy Program at the World Resources Institute, said in a recent press conference, a key aim of this task is for delegates to “[reconnect] what leaders did and said in Copenhagen and to formalise that in the UNFCCC into a set of decisions, combined with a clear pathway in the form of a legal document.” Parties will produce “draft decisions” on issues such as adaptation, financing, REDD plus, accounting and verification, mitigation pledges, and technology transfer so that when heads of state meet in Cancun, they’ll be able to quickly move to identify points of common ground on these issues to carry enough momentum into South Africa for COP-17.

What can’t be ignored this week in Tianjin is the current state of China-US relations. Recent headlines such as the complaint filed by the US steelworkers union against Chinese clean-energy subsidies and a bill currently being discussed in Congress that would penalise China for keeping its currency artificially low are evidence of the current tenuousness of Sino-American relations. It remains to be seen this week whether such a political backdrop will cloud the climate discussions in Tianjin between the two countries, particularly on issues such as financing, technology transfer and the Measurable, Reportable, and Verifiable (MRV) aspects of actions from developing countries and of commitments and support from developed countries.

As you’ll remember from the COP-15 discussions in Copenhagen (here’s a link to my reporting of the MRV issue while there) the United States came in demanding international verification of China’s domestic climate actions, a move that riled and split the Chinese delegation, although China in the end agreed to “international consultation and analysis”. However, according to Kenneth Lieberthal, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, this agreement to “international consultation and analysis” was only made reluctantly and caused considerable dissension within the Chinese delegation, as it went beyond what the Chinese representatives had in their talking points coming into Copenhagen. Lieberthal contends that the Chinese were unhappy in particular about bringing in the MRV piece into a formal COP-approved process; instead, the Chinese are looking only to bring in elements from Copenhagen that prove useful and basing negotiations in the two-track process of the Kyoto Protocol and the Bali Action Plan. I’ll be following the MRV issue closely over the next few days, as part of my dissertation research and the reason why I’m in Tianjin as an observer.

To make matters worse, the United States also missed an opportunity to engage in high-level climate and energy discussions with the high-level Chinese officials, including NDRC Vice Minister Xie Zhenhua, who – as host of the negotiations – is undoubtedly present and available.  While the US delegation is in the perfectly capable hands of Jonathan Pershing, deputy special envoy for climate change, the presence of his boss, Todd Stern, would have given tremendous mian zi (literally, “face;” or figuratively, “dignity or respect”) to the Chinese hosts. The talks would have been prime opportunity for the two climate behemoths to repair some of the ground lost over the last year.

Despite the daunting challenges always on the plate at these UNFCCC meetings, I hope that delegates here heed the charge of executive secretary Christiana Figueres during this morning’s welcome plenary session – “Now is the time to act”, else we threaten to forfeit the credibility of multilateralism in solving the global climate change challenge.

More to come … follow me on Twitter at @ecoangelhsu for real-time updates from the Tianjin Meijiang Convention Center.