The first round of international climate talks hosted by China highlights the biggest energy consumer's struggle to expand its role in global-warming policy while shining a spotlight on the country's ambitions and shortcomings in clean energy.
Few analysts or participants expect groundbreaking developments from this week's talks, set to begin Monday in the northeastern Chinese port city of Tianjin. But they are seen as a chance to narrow differences between various countries ahead of a year-end United Nations summit in Cancun to find a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, the international treaty on global warming that expires in 2012.
'At the Tianjin conference we aim to reduce the divergence as much as possible and try to achieve positive progress so as to contribute to the progress of the Cancun conference,' Xie Zhenhua, China's top climate negotiator, said last week.
Last year's highly anticipated climate-change summit in Copenhagen ended acrimoniously with a last-minute nonbinding accord brokered by the U.S. and China, both of which had traded accusations of diplomatic snubs.
The talks will also shine a spotlight on China's ambitions -- and shortcomings -- in clean energy at a time when the industry has emerged as a battleground between the China and the U.S. For now, climate-change legislation has been largely shelved in the U.S. Congress, but trade tensions have intensified over China's efforts to build up its green technology sector.
When the Kyoto treaty was signed in 1997, China and other developing countries were exempted from limits on greenhouse-gas emissions. The U.S., which opposed that exemption, never ratified the treaty.
Recently, China eclipsed the U.S. as the world's biggest energy user and biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. It is also on track to surpass Japan this year as the world's second-largest economy after the U.S.
At the same time, China has become a superpower in clean-energy technologies such as solar and wind power. Six of the world's top ten photovoltaic-solar-panel makers are based in China, according to consultancy iSuppli, and China exports 90% of domestic production. China also has the world's highest new installed capacity of wind-power turbines.
'The importance of new energy to China could be equivalent to energy-efficient cars for Japan in the 1970s and the [personal computer] industry for the U.S. throughout the 1980s and 1990s,' investment bank Credit Suisse said in a September report.
Chinese companies in the clean-technology sectors lead the world in the number of initial public offerings for the last five quarters, according to industry analyst Dallas Kachan, of Dallas, Texas-based Kachan & Co.
Backed by the government and supported by cheap loans from state-owned banks, Chinese companies have also pioneered development of electric vehicles, advanced batteries, and power plants that can burn coal more efficiently and store carbon emissions underground.
China's growing prowess in clean energy will be on display this week in Tianjin, which, in collaboration with the Singapore government, is developing a district based on environmental urban planning called EcoCity.
International environmental groups are planning to tour some of the showcase Chinese projects, including GreenGen, a power plant being built by a state-owned utility. When completed, it will be the first commercial-scale plant to use a technology that turns coal into gas, making it easier to capture carbon. The homegrown Chinese technology is being licensed overseas and is drawing attention from some environmental groups as a tool to help contain emissions.
While many analysts see China's strength in clean technology as helpful for the effort to rein in emissions, its policies have also stirred opposition. Critics say it gives Chinese firms unfair advantages and violates international trade treaties.
In September, the United Steelworkers filed a complaint with U.S. trade officials claiming that China is unfairly subsidizing its clean-energy sector. And last week, 181 members of the U.S. House of Representatives wrote to President Barack Obama, urging his administration to address China's use of 'unfair trade practices' to 'globally dominate the green technology sector.'
That criticism could further complicate climate talks. One of the key issues for China is securing a mechanism to help fund clean-technology transfers from rich countries to poorer ones -- but the very success of China's green companies could undermine China's claims to be a developing country in need of further assistance.
The Tianjin talks will also bring into focus the policy commitments China has made to reduce its carbon footprint. China committed last year to cut carbon emissions per unit of gross domestic product by at least 40% from 2005 levels by 2020, and Chinese officials plan to enshrine that pledge into their 12th five-year economic plan, the country's economic blueprint set to start in 2011.
Activists say these actions have given China greater stature in the talks, while the U.S. has lost credibility after failing to move on climate legislation. The two countries account for a combined 40% of world emissions of carbon dioxide.
But China's failures are also drawing attention. China is struggling to meet a goal of increasing energy efficiency 20% by the end of 2010 from 2005 levels. And despite its efforts, carbon emissions are soaring so fast that some analysts say that by 2030 China will have emitted more carbon that the U.S. ever had in history.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao pledged earlier this year to use 'an iron fist' to reach the year-end goal, setting off a mad dash as local governments shut down factories and even rationed electricity to hospitals and turned off traffic lights to reach their electricity quotas. Critics say many factories that were shut will restart next year.
Meanwhile, some big Chinese companies, such as oil group PetroChina Corp. and personal computer maker Lenovo Group Ltd., are beginning to invest in reducing their carbon intensity to meet the government's goals, according to a report last month by the Carbon Disclosure Project.
国际间碳资讯披露平台“碳揭露计划”(Carbon Disclosure Project)在2010年9月公布的一份报告称，一些中国大型企业，如中石油(PetroChina Corp.)和个人电脑制造商联想集团(Lenovo Group Ltd.)，正开始加大投入，力争降低碳排放强度，以达到政府设定的目标。