Essential path from Copenhagen

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When leaders from 25 countries, notably the US, China, Brazil, India and South Africa, met at the night before the closing of the Copenhagen Climate Summit to draft an agreement, they did it deliberately away from the all-or-nothing normal procedures of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which was doomed to end on a deadlock.

It was therefore a desperate compromise based on the belief that any deal is better than no deal. Should these leaders come home empty-handed, the letdown would have been too big for many people around the world to accept.

The resulting document, the Copenhagen Accord, calls for reducing emissions to keep temperatures from rising more than 2C above pre-industrial levels, and that richer nations will finance a $10 billion-a-year, three-year program to fund poorer nations' projects to deal with drought and other impacts of climate change and to develop clean energy. A goal was also set to mobilize $100 billion a year by 2020 for the same adaptation and mitigation purposes.

Still the draft was protested by several nations that demanded deeper emissions cuts by the industrialized world. Another compromise was struck, and the 194-strong conference only "took note" of the paper, implying that the countries that are parties to the UNFCCC may decide to sign or not to sign on, leading to some misreporting that the agreement is not "legally binding", though it seemed that ultimately there will be at the most only five reluctant countries which will not put their signatures on it.

As it now stands, reduction commitments of signatory countries laid out in the Copenhagen Accord will not be enough to limit global warming to an increase of 2C, which some island nations have deemed too big. According to some experts, the world's temperature is already on its way to increase by 3.9C above pre-industrial levels.

On the other hand, the advanced countries' $100-billion-a-year climate aid goal by 2020 to fund poorer nations' projects to deal with impacts of climate change and to develop clean energy clearly falls far short of the actual needs of the recipients.

As such, the Copenhagen Accord is just a halfway house, paving way for another year of negotiations to iron out myriad issues leading to the next major UN climate conference in Mexico City in 2010. As major emitters, both China and the US have indicated their willingness to provide assistance for poorer countries and to have their own climate protection measures monitored, albeit differently. The UN chief calls it "an essential beginning".

China stuck to its pre-summit commitment of carbon emission intensity reduction of 40-45 percent, which is by far the highest target set down by any participating country in the Copenhagen summit. As a developing country, it insisted that its mitigating actions would not be subjected to being measured, reported and verified as applicable to developed countries. As expected, this has drawn a lot of harsh criticisms from developed countries which then used it as an excuse to ease their own commitment. China has to put its feet down to draw the line, or else other developing countries such as India and Brazil will be subjected to the same unreasonable pressure.

In any case, China has now committed to drastically reduce its carbon emission and at the same time develop its economy, an endeavor no other countries have ever tried before. This is an unprecedented challenge of Hercules proportion that China has to confront almost entirely on its own, for taking up much funding from developed countries would be seen as snatching resources from other developing countries more in need. Knowing this self-respecting country, China will bite the bullet in its traditional self-reliant manner, strictly adhere to its international commitment regardless of cost and effort, and will go out of its way to help its Third World brothers.

This tough decision will force China to take on an entirely different path of development, one that does not take environmental targets as constraints but positively as growth engines. This philosophy has already been embedded in the 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-10) and the 17th National Congress of the CPC, and it is going to be refined further with funding earmarked to ensure the goal is reached. It will in turn spearhead breakthroughs in new renewable energy, zero emission transportation, anti-soil-erosion and anti-desertification technology, modern agriculture, energy efficient technology, and clean production technology, just to name a few.

With the largest number of scientists and engineers and also the largest market in the world, destiny has thrust upon China to become the world leader in these areas by 2020. If China succeeds in this new direction, and judging from its past records, there is a high probability it will. This is an enviable position, which the European Union and the United States both aspire but are quite unlikely to achieve as much. In addition to sustained high growth, China will then occupy world technological and moral high ground. Instead of exporting toys and shoes, China will soon export electric cars and high-speed trains. US media admit that in the not too distant future, the country will have to import efficient and clean coal power plants from China.

In the process, China has also gained some invaluable experience, which will definitely be useful for other developing countries facing the twin problem of development and environmental conservation. A rising China will come with some tested alternatives of tackling this problem now common to all developing nations after Copenhagen Accord. Its efficient small-scale low-cost methane generator for example will be very useful to the tribal communities in Africa.

The author is a member of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Basic Law Committee of the National People's Congress Standing Committee.

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