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China adopts greater openness at UN climate talks

China ramps up climate diplomacy but backs proposal to ditch 1.5C threshold from draft text

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The aftermath of flash floods in the Solomon Islands. The world's most vulnerable countries want a 1.5C warming threshold retained in the draft text at Paris climate talks, but this is opposed by oil exporting nations, and China. Pic: Nick Hobgood

Based in a series of chilly temporarily-equipped buildings near Le Bourget airport in the Paris suburbs, China’s delegation seemed relaxed at the mid-point of the two-week United Nations climate conference (COP21). Their week had begun with an address by President Xi Jinping, who joined other political leaders in expressing support for a robust agreement, and ending with a barnstorming speech from Jack Ma, founder and CEO of Alibaba, one of China’s most successful companies. 

Explaining that people in Beijing thought he was from ‘another planet’ when he insisted on coming to the climate conference, Ma said: “When I see so many friends in hospital with cancer (from air pollution) I wish I was on another planet and could go back there.” 

During a week bookended by speeches from China’s president and the country’s richest businessman, the head of China’s delegation, the genial Xie Zhenhua, and the veteran chief negotiator Su Wei, both put in numerous appearances in public discussions and side events. Technical teams worked behind the scenes to bring the draft agreement text down to manageable proportions.

In the second week, ministers take over, their task to negotiate the outstanding points of disagreement and reach a deal, under the guidance of the French foreign minister Laurent Fabius, the chair of the conference.

The Chinese delegation also seemed more confident and increasingly open than previous climate conferences.The Chinese pavilion hosted an active programme of events that included business, civil society, expert and government voices, and the presence of a number of non-Chinese contributors reinforced the impression that China wanted to play an open and positive role in both the talks and the action that will follow.  China’s public diplomacy—and the continuing goodwill engendered by the US-China climate deal last year—paid off during a week of intense negotiations at the most important climate summit since Copenhagen in 2009.

But aside from China’s positive ‘mood music’, questions have been raised about China’s negotiating position on the details of a potential Paris text. At previous sessions of UN climate talks, China has positioned itself as a defender of the most vulnerable, but in the closed door talks in Paris, Chinese negotiators supported the Venezuelan and Saudi Arabian delegations, both of whom are notorious for their efforts to derail an agreement on one issue of central importance to the most vulnerable countries, and small island states in particular.

For countries such as the Marshall Islands, where a rise in sea levels is already forcing people to leave their homes, the ambition to keep global average temperature rise below 2C is not enough. They want the world’s leaders to adopt a 1.5C target, in order to give their small nations a chance of survival.  Saudi Arabia, China and Venezuela all opposed that this week. In the case of Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, counties with oil-dependent economies, self-interest is a clear motive. But China, as an emerging world power, is expected to have a much more varied range of interests. China’s position will be closely observed in the coming week. Will it position itself in support of the most vulnerable? Or quietly put the brakes on the ambition of the Paris agreement?

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