SHANXI, CHINA -NOVEMBER 26: (CHINA, HONG KONG, MACAU, TAIWAN OUT) Smoke billows from stacks as a Chinese woman wears as mask while walking in a neighborhood next to a coal fired power plant on November 26, 2015 in Shanxi, China. A history of heavy dependence on burning coal for energy has made China the source of nearly a third of the world's total carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, the toxic pollutants widely cited by scientists and environmentalists as the primary cause of global warming. China's government has publicly set 2030 as a deadline to reach the country's emissions peak, and data suggest the country's coal consumption is already in decline. The governments of more than 190 countries are expected to sign an agreement in Paris to set targets on reducing carbon emissions in an attempt to forge a new global agreement on climate change. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
A neighbourhood next to a coal fired power plant in Shanxi, China, in 2015 © Getty

As nations jockey for position ahead of next month’s UN climate talks, the most significant of its kind since the Paris accord was sealed three years ago, negotiators are beating a path in a new direction: to Beijing.

China has emerged as the powerbroker in global climate talks, helping fill a leadership vacuum created by President Donald Trump’s decision last year to pull the US out of the international agreement.

For the first time, China is hosting many of the preparatory meetings that are crucial for setting the direction of the COP24 summit, taking place in Katowice, Poland. The role reversal is all the more surprising because Beijing had, for many years, shunned a leadership role in climate talks.

Worryingly for countries that used to rely on Washington to push for a strong climate agreement, Beijing’s influence could steer the Paris agreement towards a slower pace of climate action, with more flexible rules for developing countries.

“China has a critical leadership role to play in Katowice,” said Laurence Tubiana, chief executive of the European Climate Foundation think-tank and one of the architects of the Paris accord.

“The big question is which China will turn up? We know the leadership in Beijing supports the Paris agreement . . . it needs to help deliver a strong set of rules and redirect finance away from coal.”

The key figure for those heading to China is Xie Zhenhua, the country’s lead climate negotiator of more than a decade who has become the focal point of preparations for Poland.

Delegations from both the US and EU, including Miguel Arias Cañete, the EU’s energy and climate commissioner, travelled to Beijing this month for preparatory meetings with Mr Xie, whose outsized role in laying the groundwork for the summit is accentuated by his imposing frame.

“We used to be more passive participants, and now we’re more proactive . . . that’s a big change,” Mr Xie told the Financial Times on the sidelines of a recent climate conference in California.

“China can have an impact, as President Xi [Jinping] said, to strengthen co-operation in the international climate change arena.”

Mr Cañete said Beijing had become “a fundamental actor to build consensus among developing countries”.

In previous climate negotiations, China’s influence was counterbalanced by the US and its veteran negotiator Todd Stern, who would use Washington’s diplomatic muscle to draw Beijing closer to its own positions. However, the authority of the EU, which is seeking to take up the leadership role vacated by the US, is seen as being weaker.

“If the US and China could agree, usually everybody would fall into place behind them,” said one negotiator who worked on the Paris agreement. “But now there’s no one who can pull back on China.”

Under the Paris accord, more than 190 nations pledged to work together to limit global warming to well below 2C, but it is up to each country to set its own targets for how to achieve that.

On top of the agenda for the 12-day summit that begins on December 3 is finalising the “rule book” that will govern the implementation of the agreement, including crucial details such as how nations report their emissions, and who will audit those emissions reports.

China wants developing countries to have more relaxed reporting standards than developed ones, because they may lack the capacity for complex emissions modelling. The US and EU are among those who want all countries to have the same rules for emissions reporting, with a limited degree of flexibility for the least developed countries.

Beijing has also insisted that it should be treated as a developing nation, despite being on purchasing power parity the world’s largest economy. Its move to apply for funding from the UN-backed Green Climate Fund, which gives money to developing countries for climate-related projects, was blocked by the US last month.

The idea that developing and developed nations should have different rules has its roots in the 1997 Kyoto protocol, the landmark agreement that committed countries to begin cutting their greenhouse gas emissions. But the two sets of rules concept was largely discarded with the Paris deal that aimed to create a rule book that applies to all countries.

The problem is that it does not spell out what those rules are, leaving them to be worked out in Poland next month.

“If Paris goes back to the sharply differentiated world like the Kyoto protocol, then that really threatens the whole foundation Paris was built on,” said Nat Keohane, a climate adviser under former US president Barack Obama now at the Environmental Defense Fund, a non-profit organisation.

A strong bifurcation of the rules would make it impossible for the US to rejoin the Paris deal, regardless of which political party was in power, he added.

The Poland summit takes place against a backdrop of an escalating US-China trade war, and at a time when Beijing is re-examining its approach to the international rules-based system.

China’s growing influence in climate talks also comes as its own environment record has taken a turn for the worse, concerning some observers.

Beijing has invested heavily in coal plants in developing nations as part of Mr Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative. Its carbon emissions rose in 2017 and in the first part of this year owing to economic growth, having been flat from 2014-16. The country’s official target for carbon reduction — it has pledged to reduce emissions after 2030 — is not compatible with the cuts needed to meet the Paris pledge to limit global warming to well below 2C.

Additional reporting by Archie Zhang

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