The first three days of the Tianjin climate talks have thrown up some striking contrasts with the Copenhagen summit last December: dumplings instead of meatballs, order instead of chaos, quiet work instead of noisy intransigence.
But perhaps the most remarkable difference is that while Copenhagen ended with China painted as the villain, Tianjin has started with the host nation cast in a distinctly flattering light. By paying the lion’s share of the $5m (£3m) cost of this event, China looks set to have snapped up a public relations bargain.
China’s leaders were far from certain that this would be the case. In fact, they were so uneasy about hosting their first United Nations climate conference that it took the State Council four months to approve the plan. But once they gave the go ahead, the Tianjin talks were arranged in just two months – easily a record, according to those familiar with preparations for previous negotiating sessions.
Putting on a week-long meeting for 3,000 delegates is no mean feat at any time. Yet the organisers have done it during one of the country’s two most important national holidays. It is hard to imagine the US or any European nation interrupting Christmas or Easter to stage such an event, despite all their talk of “saving the planet”.
Delegates have praised the smooth organisation, particularly compared with Copenhagen, where the chaos started with four-hour queues at the front gate and ended with night-long rows in the conference rooms.
Such comparisons are a little unfair. Copenhagen was a huge political summit, where the stress was as high as the expectations – and the stakes. Tianjin is a modest gathering of technocrats who appear far less burdened with the hopes and fears of the world. Whether the calmer and more workmanlike mood translates into substantive progress or weak ambition will be clearer at the end of the week.
But the hosts have already achieved one objective: to show that actions speak louder than words.
The choice of Tianjin is no accident. This port city exemplifies the speed at which China is moving towards a low-carbon future. This is the site of the country’s most ambitious eco-city development, a carbon exchange, a high-speed rail network and what will be one of the world’s most efficient coal plants equipped to capture carbon dioxide emissions.
Speaker after speaker this week – Chinese academics and international environmentalists alike – have highlighted the concrete steps that the world’s biggest emitter is taking to reduce its footprint.
China is closing down thousands of wasteful factories in a drive to achieve its energy efficiency targets. Last year, it invested $34bn in clean energy projects, almost twice as much as the United States. Since 2007, its high-speed rail network has gone from almost nothing to be bigger than the rest of the world combined. The government is now drawing up a new five-year economic plan that looks likely to initiate the country’s first mandatory carbon-trading scheme well before the US Senate.
Many visiting delegates have expressed admiration and envy. US negotiators are just as likely to feel embarrassment and anxiety. Washington has yet to pass even modest climate legislation and is falling further and further behind in the race to lead a clean energy market that is forecast to be worth $13 trillion.
Never mind the dumplings and meatballs, the starkest contrast so far this week is not between Tianjin and Copenhagen, it is between China and the United States.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: With our current economic situation, the fact that we’re still not moving forward with a new and REAL green revolution is nearly criminal. We could get the jobs market moving again if we created green jobs and new environmental engineering industries aimed towards developing technological advancements that cut down on human emissions. There are many reasons we’re so far behind the rest of the world and very few have ties to our current economic situation. We’re a nation that’s very scientifically and mathematically illiterate, we’re very divided and polarized, especially politically, we live in an informational bubble that’s centered on American concerns, etc. We’re totally focused on the wrong things and are vastly unaware of international happenings - nor does our concern for other beings extend past our maritime borders. Furthermore, even though the United States is one of the world’s biggest polluters, other countries like Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Algeria, Sudan, Ecuador, etc. are those who have the most to lose and have already begun to feel the effects of global warming.
Not only is the complacency of the United States a concern for the rest of the world, but it’s in our interest to eliminate our environmental apathy and to take radical action on the issue. We all live on the same terrestrial rock that’s orbiting a single star around 108,000 km/h. It’s in the interest of each inhabitant to not only preserve their own well-being but also the entity that allows for such an existence, that is, Earth itself.