Who They Gonna Call?
Last week, before hundreds of students and others gathered to call for government action on climate change, Beijing officials were busy talking with its two biggest climate interlocutors: India and the United States.
They weren't all talking together though. As the last round of climate talks before Copenhagen begin in Barcelona , China is playing a careful game of climate diplomacy with the U.S. and developing countries.
How Beijing, the de facto lead representative of the developing nations -- and the world's biggest carbon emitter -- will balance both lines of demands is one of the biggest questions leading up to Copenhagen.While it attempts to forge ties and come to a breakthrough with the U.S. over emissions reductions and clean technology, China is also trying to keep its obligations to its developing world cousins, who have demanded that the U.S. and other developed countries keep the Kyoto Protocol in place.
Yang Fuqiang, the director of global climate solutions at the China office of the World Wildlife Fund, told TreeHugger last week that in playing the negotiations, China is delicately balancing a more amenable approach with a tough-guy stance -- a stance it can ultimately fall back on if necessary.
"The Chinese government doesn't want to be too aggressive as it leads India, Brazil and other emerging economies to say, "why, developed countries, haven't you made any commitments?" Yang said. "But China is holding this final trump card close to its chest."
Developing Nations' Demands
The developing nations want the US and other developed countries to adopt the terms of the Kyoto Protocol, and Chinese President Hu Jintao has told President Obama that doing so is necessary for an agreement.
Under Kyoto, whose mandated cuts expire in 2012, developed countries agreed to legally binding cuts, but the U.S. didn't ratify the treaty, and the treaty's limits didn't apply to developing countries.
In Bangkok, the U.S. and developed countries emphasized they wanted binding cuts from developing countries, even as they resisted calls from those nations to make stronger cuts themselves. Lu Xuedu, deputy director of China's National Climate Center, last week called those demands "shocking" and said they had angered developing countries.
"If the trend can't be turned around in the next round of meetings, I estimate the Copenhagen meeting can only fail," Lu said.
But the U.S. and European position isn't likely to change. "We are not going to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. That is out," US climate negotiator Jonathan Pershing told AFP at Bangkok.
Instead the U.S. wants a new legal framework that asks all countries to issue carbon-curbing schemes that can be measured, reported and verified (MRV) by outside experts. Without MRV, a climate agreement wouldn't be worth the recycled paper its printed on.
"We are not asking (developing) countries to commit to the outcome. We are asking them to commit to the action itself," Pershing said earlier in a press conference. "We have to commit to the outcome. There is a big difference."
Bilateral Agreement vs. Climate Justice
There's no doubt that China's leaders get it. They want a low-carbon economy. The question is, will China strive for a strong agreement with the second largest carbon emitter, the U.S., or will it resist making concessions to the U.S. for now while repeating the developing nations' refrain of fairness.
This isn't to say that either choice is mutually exclusive or that one is more important than the other. To be sure, the developed nations, who are historically larger emitters, should bear a larger burden than the developing nations, who stand to be hurt most by those emissions.
But that danger is even more reason for China to back the U.S. demands for MRV and put the distracting debate over Kyoto aside.
Working Both Lines of Communication?
Should China's negotiators manage to decouple its demands on the U.S. from its interests in cooperation, progress is still possible at Copenhagen.
In the name of pragmatism, the U.S. has carefully sought to decouple its discussions with China over the environment and other issues from the very sensitive topic of human rights.
Of course, it's important that the U.S. maintain pressure on China over human rights, and it's crucial to keep the demands of developing nations on the table. Without China's involvement, it's likely those demands could get easily knocked off.
And if China does distance itself from the developing countries' demands and forge stronger ties to the U.S. over climate, some argue that that could hurt a future agreement between all nations.
"I am concerned about a possible under cover agreement between the United States and China. That would produce a weak agreement at Copenhagen, which would not be good either for Europe or India," Laurence Tubiana, director, global public goods at European Union's ministry of foreign and European Affairs told this correspondent.
At a conference in Beijing this weekend, Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said he thought China would stick with the developing nations, including India.
"I doubt China will dilute its stand or go with the United States on the issue," he said.
Smart Strategy or Too Risky?
From a strategic perspective, China's insistence on sticking with the developing nations puts the ball in the U.S.'s court, essentially making the success of a climate agreement contingent on Washington.
But to dwell on demands, put forward a tough face and put extreme pressure on the U.S. risks not only the success of global negotiations in the short term but also of the delicate cooperation that China has been building with the U.S.
And siding strongly with the developing nations could also slow the progress China wants to make in tackling its carbon emissions, progress it sees as increasingly crucial to its economic development, its ecological health and its global reputation.
China's tough decision illustrates its unique and powerful position in fighting climate change: it's a developing country with arguably less responsibility for the mess we're in than the U.S.
But it also knows it's a big part of the climate problem. And, fortunately for Beijing, part of the solution.