A green activist from Maldives, submerged in a 3-meter-high Perspex tank filled with water, stages a protest in front of the Bella Center in Copenhagen on Monday. Courtesy of Oxfam
Just minutes before the curtains went up on the United Nations' Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen on Monday, a green activist from Maldives staged an unusual protest.
In front of the Bella Center where negotiators from all over the globe have gathered to press for a historic deal on climate change, the activist, submerged in a 3-meter-high Perspex tank filled with water, enacted a scenario that showed the tiny island nation as being deluged by floods.
It may have been a strange way to protest, but the activist was clearly sending out a message - that rising sea levels due to global warming could make the Maldives uninhabitable within the century, forcing the country's 360,000 citizens to flee.
Wang Binbin, a 30-year-old press officer from Oxfam's Beijing office, who was watching the protest, was a key mover behind this novel demonstration.
In fact, Wang is the only mainland Chinese in the 60-member-strong Oxfam team at Copenhagen; her daily duties include helping reporters from Asia, especially those from China, keep track of the latest developments at the conference.
"I have been given this task mainly because the international community recognizes the importance of China's presence at Copenhagen," Wang said. "I am quite proud of my contribution."
Wang's role is not unique.
Apart from the government delegation led by Premier Wen Jiabao, China's civil society has become an influential force at the meeting, which is aimed at supplanting the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.
Although exact figures are unavailable, many Chinese citizens have already landed in Copenhagen in their various individual capacities. But, many more, including journalists, are at home, unable to attend due to the restrictions on the number of invitees.
China's growing economic clout has led to it being more interested in engaging with the rest of the world. This trend has been reflected in the strategies it has adopted to tackle both the financial and climate crises.
For instance, China has clearly articulated its desire to obtain more decision-making power in international organizations by injecting capital to support these financial institutions.
The same ground rules are being applied to climate change issues as well. In fact, China's role in climate change talks has been on the up recently.
Chinese President Hu Jintao and his US counterpart Barack Obama have discussed climate change issues nearly 10 times, be it at international summits, bilaterally or through hotlines, so far this year.
In addition, their climate change envoys, Xie Zhenhua and Todd Stern, have held wide-ranging discussions on the topic at least on 20 occasions.
"China has brought new energy and dynamism into the global governance system," said Dennis Pamlin, a Sweden-based visiting scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
This is not only true of consensus building at post-Kyoto climate change negotiations, but also on other international efforts such as the World Trade Organization. China was among the earliest to press for the need to define sustainable trade in a sophisticated manner, and not just as another tool to export more goods like how the EU and the US did, Pamlin said.
China's role as a team player is vital and this will hopefully be developed further, he said.
In an era of transparency and engagement with different strata of civil society both within and outside China, a lot more is expected of the country in the coming years, Pamlin said.
It would be a great beginning, for instance, if China were to invite more foreigners to team up on low-carbon projects, and wherever possible, make that information available in English, Pamlin said.
Clear action plans, multilateral collaboration in emerging areas such as nano-technology, support for multi-stakeholder participation, and helping Chinese companies take the lead in global initiatives would strengthen climate change efforts, Pamlin pointed out.
Already, Chinese businesses have started taking the first steps on the global stage. "At Copenhagen, the Chinese are very active and now these businessmen too have joined in," Pamlin said.
In fact, even as Wang Binbin was organizing the unique protest for the start of the meet, more than 400 climate change negotiators, business leaders, environmental activists and journalists boarded the CO2-free Climate Express train on December 5 to the Copenhagen conference.
In the train, Chinese real estate tycoons Feng Lun and Wang Shi shared a ride with Jean-Pierre Loubinoux, Director-General of the International Union of Railways (UIC) and the initiator of this special train concept.
Achim Steiner, the executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme and James P. Leape, director-general of the WWF, were also on the Express.
"This has great symbolic meaning - China's global engagement and dialogue in the climate change era are open," Pamlin said.
During the past several years, China's determination to cope with environmental woes and global warming has won global plaudits.
Ian Johnson, chairman of the London-based IDEAcarbon and former vice-president for sustainable development at the World Bank, said China was very serious when it came to implementing its decisions.
Since 1991, Johnson had played a major role in negotiating for the establishment of the Global Environment Facility and had managed its day-to-day operations for six years. He had witnessed China's increasing global role in sustainable development.
"I remember well the logging ban (triggered by the large death toll during unprecedented floods in 1998) that was introduced years ago and how effectively that was implemented," said Johnson.
"So, I think the first thing to say is that China is a serious player and always has been, and takes these issues seriously, even in those cases where it may disagree with the West on issues."
Daniel Dudek, chief economist with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a US-based green campaigner, said China had made very significant progress in its efforts to participate in the global environment governance system, but that there was still a long way to go.
"China has recognized the necessity and benefits of actively engaging in the process of building the system," said Dudek, who has been flying frequently between Beijing and Washington since the 1990s to strengthen Sino-US cooperation on environment.
As a close observer of China's internal environment and climate management regime, Dudek believes the nation is still a little wary about taking the lead globally, but he said the country should work hard to devise a sophisticated green campaign.
"China needs to embrace the minimum elements necessary for success, articulate clearly the relationship between its positions and protection of the global climate, and work to be sure that the evolving governance system is up to the task," he said.
Dudek pointed out that the Copenhagen conference was just the right time to make sure that there was sufficient responsibility and accountability within the system to drive much-needed private investment.
Otherwise, short-term economic interests would overshadow larger concerns and lead to failure in building mutually-agreed frameworks for a safer environment in the long run, he said.
"Hopefully, China will judge its own performance at Copenhagen by the latter metric rather than the former," Dudek said.
The world has changed fundamentally since the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development was convened in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.
Differences between local, regional, and national economies have all but vanished in the wake of globalization. These differences were gradually smoothed away under the common framework of the WTO.
This tight global economic linkage, however, has resulted in issues of political resonance, such as competitiveness and employment, being readily transmitted from one nation to the other, Dudek said.
Therefore, it was a tough task for the world to unite on environmental governance, since there was no common framework for management, only a differentiated structure, he said.
"As long as differences between major carbon emitters persist, it will be difficult to achieve in the climate arena the extraordinary benefits that the world has reaped in the economic sphere," Dudek pointed out.
Despite such pessimism, Johnson believes China can help bring about a change. "We have to recognize the scale of China so one has to recognize that China is a powerful economic player and a lot of the decisions that are taken in China will reverberate around the world and will affect other countries," he said.
China has a unique opportunity to demonstrate its willingness to adopt next generation technologies and to adapt to tough climate change goals, he said.
"It has tremendous opportunity to do so because it is a country that is listened to very carefully, particularly by the developing world, and will be watched closely for lessons," Johnson said.
(China Daily 12/09/2009 page7)