China must be part of the Copenhagen solution

As the summit moves to the business end of the proceedings, the debate is narrowing to what is politically achievable. China’s official party line, spelt out in The Weekend Australian by the Chinese ambassador to Australia, Junsai Zhang, is presumably an ambit claim as it moves to position itself as a key player in the formulation of the final communique. There is a long way to go for the world’s biggest producer of greenhouse gases as it argues that the rich, industrialised West owes a “carbon debt” to the developing world and refuses to be legally bound to targets. In the next few days, the world will want movement from China on two key issues – acceptance that carbon cuts must be binding and subject to monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV); and recognition that the rules are changing around financial assistance to countries such as China, India and Brazil.

China has complained about the moves to jettison the Kyoto Protocol, but it is clear that document does not capture the complex range of economies within the developing world. It makes sense to distinguish between developing countries such as China and poorer, vulnerable nations when it comes to assisting them to adapt to climate change. China’s claim for access to new technology, regardless of patents, is part of its bargaining to receive help other than direct grants. Beijing has committed to reducing its carbon intensity by 40-45 per cent by 2020 compared with 2005 levels, but its refusal to agree to outside scrutiny runs counter to the spirit of a shared response to global warming. China was adamant again yesterday that it would “do its own checking”.

In its 60th anniversary year, the People’s Republic of China has been debating its role as a political player in international affairs. During recent celebrations, English-language Chinese television was brimful of commentators navel-gazing about how the West perceived the new China. The big question was how to translate the increased economic power of China to a leadership role internationally. Beijing should see climate change as an opportunity to begin playing that global role, adopting a mature approach that recognises its responsibilities as a powerful developing nation.

As the leaders gather for the showdown in Copenhagen, the US and China are looking to exert leverage on each other and the rest of the world. As US chief negotiator Todd Stern has made clear, the US will not do a deal unless “major developing countries (read China) step up”. Agreement at Copenhagen requires movement from many nations and cannot be achieved by the US and China alone. But without constructive engagement from China matched by leadership from the US, little will be accomplished.

In the end, political reality, not science or street protests or justice for Tuvalu, will determine the result.

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