Transparency of climate change actions: sitting down with Minister Xie

While the Tianjin negotiations that recently concluded did not meet our expectations for the road to Cancun, discussions outside the plenary showed that there is still some progress being made. Minister Xie Zhenhua – China’s chief climate negotiator – sat down with me and representatives from 22 other domestic and international NGOs in Tianjin, and I had the opportunity to ask him directly about China’s views on transparency of climate change actions.

First, Minister Xie told me – and it has since been confirmed by several others – that China will complete and publish its second National Communication on Climate Change under the UNFCCC by the end of this year. International audiences lack up-to-date knowledge from China on its GHG-producing sectors (the initial National Communication only contains data for 1994), so this report, especially if it is completed in time for Cancun, will demonstrate China’s commitment to the GHG inventory process.  NRDC is currently working on a set of recommendations on how to improve reporting under national communications, and we hope to have these done by Cancun.

Second, China agrees in principle to international consultation and analysis (ICA) of its domestic actions – parties just need to sit down and work out the details. This statement by China’s chief international climate negotiator goes further than his pledge earlier this month to increase transparency, and echoes climate negotiator Su Wei in the last days of Tianjin: “China can accept international discussions, consultations, dialogue and clarifications.” (text here, Chinese only)

Conversations on transparency have not been restricted to the negotiators level. As my colleague Jake Schmidt noted in the Tianjin aftermath, concrete actions are most important for a positive outcome in Cancun. And so, following the Tianjin meeting, we sat down with a number of Chinese and American academics and policy experts in Beijing to flesh out the details of what enhanced national communications and ICA would look like. One informal workshop co-hosted by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change and Tsinghua University was the most comprehensive and candid exchange of ideas on the subject I have heard.   It was a pleasure to discuss these issues on a technical basis outside the politically charged atmosphere of the climate negotiations.

 He Jiankun, Director of the Low Carbon Energy Lab at Tsinghua University and a key climate advisor to President Hu Jintao, kicked off the workshop by saying that there is a need for the US and China to understand each other’s MRV and statistical systems, and for China to determine whether its current domestic MRV system is in line with requirements for autonomous programs. He also noted the importance of studying the reporting and review processes of other multilateral regimes to determine any useful lessons for climate.  Above all, he stressed the importance of these efforts to build the trust that is necessary to reach a global climate agreement.

Of particular interest was the presentation of Teng Fei of the Institute of Energy, Environment and Economy at Tsinghua University.  He began by describing China’s system for domestic MRV of national energy targets, policies and measures, followed by a frank discussion of some of the challenges facing China in obtaining and evaluating relevant data.  These include difficulties in obtaining comprehensive statistics on coal, transportation energy, coal-bed methane, biomass, and the rapidly growing clean energy sector.  China also faces enormous challenges in building the necessary capacity and institutions to evaluate the data provided by provincial governments, who often have incentives to falsify the numbers.  China is moving to address these challenges, but it will take time and resources.

Nonetheless, Teng Fei confirmed that China will complete its second national communication by the end of this year. This report will cover three more greenhouse gases (HFC, PFC an SF6) and two more regions (Hong Kong, China and Macao) than the initial national communication, and may include projections of GHG emissions up to 2020 if sufficient data are available.  He said that China may submit its national communications on a more frequent basis as institutional and statistical barriers are gradually removed.

 I have said before that it is in China’s own best interests to develop a comprehensive, reliable reporting system to keep the world informed of its domestic actions on clean energy and climate:

  • China is meeting ambitious domestic commitments and deserves credit; 
  • Increased information exchange strengthens the international system and builds confidence; and
  • China’s experiences with low-carbon development provide useful models for other developing countries.

There is hope that the U.S. and China can come to an agreement on the thorny issue of transparency, as long as they continue working together and recognize that there is room for an agreement that meets the needs of both countries. Overcoming this hurdle will go a long way towards securing a meaningful outcome in Cancun and beyond.

This post was coauthored with NRDC China Climate Fellow Michael Davidson.