BEIJING | China is trying to persuade rich nations to finance its fight against climate change just as the developed world is tightening its purse strings.
The Chinese government used a two-day conference in Beijing, which ended Saturday, to trumpet proposals for rich economies to devote up to 1 percent of their gross domestic product to help developing countries reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“The developed countries have a responsibility and an obligation to respond to global climate change by altering their unsustainable way of life,” Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao told representatives of 76 nations.
China has been quick to grab the initiative in global climate change talks, wary of pressure over its own ballooning emissions.
Scientists say China has already overtaken the United States as the world’s biggest polluter. The Chinese government did not refer to this in a recent white paper, but a senior official admitted for the first time that China’s total emissions were “about the same as the United States.”
“Whether or not we have surpassed the United States is not in itself important,” Xie Zhenhua, a deputy chief of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), told the conference.
The timing of the meeting was significant. A major United Nations climate change conference is to be held in the Polish city of Poznan in December. Negotiators will continue a quest to agree on a successor to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.
The Chinese government recognizes the urgent need to tackle the repercussions of its explosive, and ultimately unsustainable, industrial growth. State media has widely reported that climate change is causing crop failure and increasing the risks of flooding and drought. Environment-related protests are also on the rise.
However, the central government insists that it is not prepared to impede economic progress through the implementation of environmental measures.
Instead, China is demanding that rich nations set aside between 0.7 percent and 1 percent of their GDP to help poorer nations cut emissions. That amounts to more than $300 billion a year from the Group of Seven countries. The bulk of the money would be used to transfer advanced technology to combat climate change.
China is also advocating the establishment of an intergovernmental body overseen by the United Nations to coordinate technology transfers and handle issues such as protecting intellectual property rights.
Countries including the United States reply that developing countries should first agree to cap their emissions. But China argues that any limits would compromise poverty reduction goals.
Beijing’s view is that developed nations are responsible for the lion’s share of greenhouse gases and poorer nations should not be punished for rich nations’ historical excesses.
Meanwhile, experts express doubts over the viability of technology transfer as the financial crisis squeezes government budgets.
Harlan L. Watson, the U.S. State Department’s special envoy to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, said climate change comes second to dealing with economic ills.
“The economy is going to be the focus of the new U.S. president and the world leaders for the foreseeable future. Quite frankly, the economy has buried everything,” he told the publication, Carbon Finance.
Also holding the United States back is China’s unique status as a developing nation that boasts the world’s third-largest economy, a wide-ranging space program and a reputation buffed by a lavish Olympics.
“We are heading for a train wreck,” warned Charles McElwee, an environmental lawyer in Shanghai and strategic adviser for Joint U.S.-China Cooperation on Clean Energy.
“Does anyone think that the U.S. Senate will ratify a treaty that commits a recession-plagued U.S. to a treaty where it must undertake real GHG [greenhouse gas] reduction limits, while a growing economic powerhouse like China gets to continue to increase its GHG emissions and gets lots of money and free technology to boot?” he asked on his China environmental law blog.
“China’s attempt to assume a ‘developing nation’ mantle in the global warming sphere is like an elephant hoping to remain inconspicuous among a flock of sheep,” he wrote.
China insists that previous agreements dictate that developing nations are entitled to the green technologies.
“The transfer of technology to developing countries on favorable conditions is the obligation of developed countries,” Zhang Ping, a minister of the NDRC, told the China Daily newspaper recently.
The U.N. chief climate change official backed China’s claim at the Beijing conference.
“If international technology transfers happen, the developing countries like China will be able to take action that is not affordable to them at the moment,” said Yvo de Boer, executive director of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Environmental campaigners within China say the government should not rely on free technology from abroad.
“The Chinese government needs to recognize that without taking collective action we will not have a solution,” said Wen Bo, China director for Pacific Environment. “It should invest money in developing in its own technology as in the long run it will benefit the Chinese people. But I don’t see this happening, it is only trying to find a short cut.”
Environmentalists point out that China does not necessarily need the most expensive green technologies. It can further explore solar and wind power, sectors already developing at a swift pace in China.
A recent report titled “The True Cost,” published by Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund and the Energy Foundation, said China’s reliance on coal was ravaging the country’s environment and creating a hidden cost of $250 billion a year, more than 7 percent of its annual GDP.
Some experts are putting their hopes in President-elect Barack Obama, saying that if he leads on climate change, China would be under more pressure to make concessions.
“With President-elect Obama, my hope is that the U.S. can take on a leadership role and help to move the negotiations forward,” Mr. de Boer said.