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A Momentous Time for China

October 18, 2010

Green TianjinAttending the UNFCCC intersessional conference in Tianjin, China was a really unique experience in many ways.  First, this meeting itself was different in that most intersessionals are held in Bonn, Germany, where the UNFCCC Secretariat is permanently housed.  Other major COP (Conference of the Parties) meetings are often held in developed countries, like last year’s in Copenhagen or the 1997 Kyoto conference where the Kyoto Protocol was established.  Other COPs have been held in the developing world, but this session was the first ever of such a high level to be held in China.  This is significant for several reasons, one being that China has emerged as one of the most important major players in the UNFCCC as recently as last year.  The Copenhagen conference saw a new dynamic emerging, of developed countries led by the United States arguing that rapidly growing economies with high emissions like China, India, and others should have to make binding emissions cuts even though they did not have to under the Kyoto Protocol, while China argued that those responsible for historic emissions, like the United States and the European Union, should be the only countries responsible for making legally binding emissions reductions.  In fact, the Copenhagen Accord itself was essentially thrashed out behind closed doors by leaders from the United States and China. The Tianjin conference therefore in certain ways represented a rising respect for China’s new position in the UNFCCC negotiating process.

China has also recently emerged as a global leader in clean energy technologies, and the conference in Tianjin, a recently designated “eco-city” and therefore a tangible representation of China’s progress in creating green urban environments, was a symbol of China’s progress.  China has the most installed renewable electricity capacity of any country in the world.  It is building a series of high-speed “bullet” train, one of which already commutes between Beijing and Tianjin in less than half an hour (it’s a three hour bus trip with traffic).  It is the largest investor in green technology, and the world’s leading renewable energy producer, with 52.5 GW of renewable energy in 2009.  China has some of the world’s most ambitious renewable energy targets as well, and is well on its way to exceeding them, having invested $34.6 billion on renewable energies in 2009.  It is a leader in manufacturing and exporting solar and wind energy technologies.  But China is also still struggling to balance its burgeoning population and economy with sustainable development measures that limit pollution.  The thick smog that descended over the city of Tianjin throughout the week was proof of this: by the end of the week, it was difficult to see the outlines of buildings in the distance that would have been perfectly visible on an ordinary day.  Nearly every Chinese journalist and conference volunteer was curious about Western views of China’s progress: had we heard of Chin’as national fiver year energy plan?  What did we think of the eco-city? Their curiosity represented the broader exchange of ideas that the conference in Tianjin facilitated, allowign country delegates and NGOs to have a more honest discussion about the implications of national versus local energy policies in China, the United States, the E.U., and around the world.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have much time to explore the green city.  But from what I  heard about it, the city’s “green-ness” is on a macro rather than a micro scale.  In our green building here at the FCNL, we have a geothermal heating and cooling system, recycled building parts and eco-friendly office furniture, amongst other cool features.  Tianjin’s green features, however, were introduced through top-down government planning rather than piecemeal efforts, so it’s green features include for example a brand new metro system to take more cars off the roads.  A truly exciting experience was taking the high-speed train from Tianjin back to Beijing.  On the way in, I took the bus, which took about 3 hours, cost 70 Yuan and looked like it could not have been manufactured after 1960.  The train took about half an hour, cost 55 Yuan, and  was sparkling clean and comfortable inside.  I couldn’t help but compare the train to the Amtrak train that I sometimes take from Union Station to Philadelphia to visit family and friends back home in New Jersey.  The train is convenient, but ridiculously expensive.  If Amtrak is subsidized by our government, just like the high-speed train in China is, why can’t it be as affordable and efficient?  Needless to say, it was interesting to see first hand how a top-down national policy on clean energy and reducing carbon emissions translated into actions on the ground.

An equally fascinating comparison was getting to meet and talk to the Chinese Plenaryenvironmental NGO groups that were present at the conference.  Given government restrictions (the government blocks access to many websites including social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, and often puts harsh restrictions on NGO work), I wondered whether there would even be a significant NGO presence there. Yet the groups with a presence at the cofnerence seemed to be thriving despite the restrictions that they faced: they knew their stuff when it came to the technical details of the talks, and were able to weigh in on events throughout the week, for example handing an open letter to the US delegation urging them to meet Chinese commitments to emissions reductions at home.  Talking to NGO members, I learned that NGOs are quite a new phenomenon in China, but that a coalition of environment-related NGOs have been gaining in importance in recent years.  It was exciting to see that civil society engagement really is a universal value, and that young people, activists and scholars from all over the world are so energized to work on one of the defining issues of our time.

Finally, being in China when the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize Liu Xiaobo was announced was quite the surreal experience, even if unrelated to the UNFCCC process.  We were able to watch the news coverage on the BBC at our hotel, but I heard later that almost all coverage of the announcement was immediately cut off all over China.  Chinese colleagues at the talks were cautiously hopeful about the prize, and excited that the Chinese government’s repression of dissident intellectuals was being highlighted.  But I also heard that most average Chinese people would never hear of the announcement because of the media blackout.  It was certainly a moving experience to get a firsthand glimpse into the turmoil surrounding a peace activist’s work in a closed society.


Check back soon for my next post, where I’ll talk more about how my trip will impact my work at FCNL!

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