Amid financial crisis, China is the new champion for carbon reduction

Amid financial crisis, China is the new champion for carbon reduction

Industrial emissions are a major source of CO2 contributing to climate change. Photo: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/un_photo/5410822714/sizes/z/in/photostream/">United Nations Photo (flickr)</a>
Industrial emissions are a major source of CO2 contributing to climate change. Photo: United Nations Photo (flickr)

The ongoing global financial crisis should not impede the fight against climate change. That's the concern coming from a surprising corner of the world: China.

As the latest round of UN-sponsored climate talks continue in Durban, South Africa, Chinese officials warn that financial hardships in Europe, the United States and elsewhere are no excuse for inaction on climate change.

With the Kyoto Protocol about to die, the global financial crisis could add another dimension to the already complex relationship between rich and poor countries when it comes to climate change.

China’s top climate official said a global pact to fight climate change should be a top priority for developed countries, even as they face severe economic challenges at home. "After the financial crisis, every country has had its problems, but these problems are just temporary," Xie Zhenhua, vice-director of the National Development and Reform Commission, told reporters, according to Reuters. He expressed concern that rich countries will break their promises to help poor ones mitigate and adapt to climate change.

According to The Economist, the vast majority of ‘climate finance’ for developing countries comes from western nations. Over $75 billion a year, or more than 75 percent of climate finance to the developing world, comes from a combination of private donors and multilateral and bilateral banks funded by taxpayers in wealthy countries. These sources have been hit the hardest by the global financial crisis.

"Climate change hasn't become less important because of the international financial crisis, but it has become less prominent," Xie said.

Developing countries, meanwhile, would be hit hardest by climate-related disasters. They lack the infrastructure and financial resources to deal with problems they have had less of a hand in causing. The 2010 climate talks in Cancun included a commitment of $30 billion to poorer nations to adapt to impacts of climate change, and an increase to $100 billion a year by 2020 for this ‘green climate fund.’ Now, says China, even the initial $30 billion commitment seems unlikely to be met.

China might seem an unlikely voice of support for carbon cuts, as it has surpassed the United States as the world’s leading producer of CO2 emissions. Under the Kyoto protocol, China was deemed an emerging economy, and not bound to the stipulations placed on developed countries. Yet China has pledged to reduce its emissions intensity by 40 to 45 percent by 2020, and hopes western countries sign on for an extension of the protocol’s commitment period. Kyoto signatories Canada and Japan have already refused to extend the protocol’s requirements. The United States has also said further negotiations are off the table.

That means the Durban discussions themselves may well determine the direction of climate funding and its impacts. And without climate action, the financial crisis could soon seem like a small-scale problem.

Erik Mandell is a graduate of Middlebury College in Vermont. He is currently pursuing a master's degree in public administration and global leadership at Portland State. Read his other contributions to Global Envision.

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