It takes a world to fight climate change

Monitoring the progress of the United Nations climate change conference in Bali, Indonesia, was a bit like watching a battle unfolding in front of me.

No, this was not a war between rich countries - particularly the United States, which has been polluting our sky for the past 300 years and continues to do so on a large and escalating scale - and poor countries - with China as a glaring example, though it has entered the polluting game late and committed much lesser crimes per capita, but is seen to be making its best effort to clear up the mess. This is all about mankind confronting a common problem, one that might put us out of existence. It is our common war.

Report upon report from different groups of independent scientists have clearly warned us that we are heading toward a global catastrophe and are about to pass the point of no return. The most recent scientific data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) clearly shows that action to reduce emissions must be taken now. Something urgent and drastic has to be done about the situation if we are to have any hope of heading off our common extinction. We have the means to slow down climatic change, and even ultimately reverse the situation and get back to a healthier ecology, but it seems we just do not have the collective wisdom to do so.

The adoption of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992 was a major step forward in tackling the problem of global warming. After three conferences, members of UNFCCC signed the Kyoto Protocol in December 1997, which came into force starting in February 2005. The protocol requires developed countries to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by at least 5 percent from 1990 levels by 2012. The Bush administration, together with a few other developed countries, refused to ratify the protocol, initially on the pretext that there was no concrete evidence of global warming. Then they claimed there was no clear connection between increases in GHG emissions and climate change and ultimately they fell back on rejecting specific targets for emissions cuts.

Just before the Bali conference opened, newly elected Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd signed the protocol, marking a clear departure from the untenable US position.

The purpose of the Bali conference was to achieve a breakthrough in the form of a global roadmap to fight climate change in the period after 2012, the year the first commitment period covered by the Kyoto Protocol expires. The main goal was threefold: to launch negotiations on a climate change deal for the post-2012 period, to set the agenda for these negotiations and to reach agreement on when these negotiations should conclude. The European Union and developing nations had pushed for the agenda to state that industrialized nations should reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by 25 to 40 percent by 2020, but the US joined several other countries in rejecting targets.

China's position has been clear and consistent, as spelled out by President Hu Jintao at the APEC forum in Sydney in September. The country supports the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities" enshrined in the Kyoto Protocol. Developed countries should face up to their historical responsibility and their currently high emissions, strictly abide by the emissions reduction targets set forth in the Kyoto Protocol, honor their commitment to making technology transfers and providing financial support to developing countries and continue to take the lead in reducing emissions after 2012. Developing countries should, in light of conditions on the ground at home, take due measures, including introducing and applying advanced clean technologies, improving their capacity to mitigate and adapt to climate change and contributing their share to tackling climate change.

Again, the US has dragged its feet on the issue. The US argues that talks should first focus on ways to reduce GHG emissions, and then discuss specific targets. In the end, negotiators had to agree to US demands in order to salvage any hope of reaching an agreement over the next two years.

With or without the US in the game, the Kyoto Protocol carries on. In order to give the signatory countries a certain degree of flexibility in meeting their emissions reduction targets, the protocol has developed three innovative mechanisms - known as Emissions Trading, the Joint Implementation and the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). These market-based mechanisms allow developed countries to earn and trade emissions credits through projects implemented in other countries, which they can then use to meet their own commitments. Still, the EU came under fire from environmental activists in Bali for not offering poor countries explicit funding to help fight climate change and cut greenhouse gas emissions.

As the Bali conference wrapped up, rich countries committed to distributing more funds and technology to poor countries.

As a party to the Kyoto Protocol, China has done its part and is also a beneficiary of these arrangements. Nearly 40 percent of global carbon trading involves China, and in 2005 more than 90 percent of wind energy projects were financed through the CDM. The capacity of wind turbines in China doubled last year, and is expected to double again this year.

According to an authoritative report, with sufficient incentives, China has the capacity to generate 1.2 gW of wind power, about three times as much energy generated by the Three Gorges Dam. China is now among the top three manufacturers of photovoltaic cells in the world. The market is still relatively small, but 60 percent of the world's solar-powered water heaters are in China. By 2020 the country will generate 1.18 gW of electricity with wind turbines, and 2.5 gW with photo-voltaic cells. The two together will make up about 9 percent of the power generated in China in 2020.

The authorities have promised the country will generate 15 percent of its energy using renewable sources by 2020. They also committed to improving the country's energy efficiency by 20 percent and to close up to 1,000 of its least efficient coal plants in the 2006-10 period. These targets are difficult to meet. In 2006, for example, China managed to improve its energy efficiency by only 1.6 percent rather than the 4 percent it had promised. The country will have to work harder, and more international support is badly needed. China just cannot fight this global war against climatic change alone.

The author, from Hong Kong, is a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference