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China Has Key Role to Play
Talking climate change in the run-up to Paris
 NO. 50 DECEMBER 10, 2015

Ahead of the international climate change conference in Paris, Magdy Martínez-Solimán, Assistant Administrator and Director of the Bureau for Policy and Program Support for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), talked to about his expectations on the summit and China's role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions on November 26. The edited interview is reprinted as follows: A new report by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) revealed that greenhouse gas concentrations in 2014 hit a new high. How can world leaders balance economic growth and climate change? 

Magdy Martínez-Solimán: The problem is that dirty growth is cheaper and faster than green growth. And green growth requires a complete transformation of economic drivers that some political leaders are simply not ready or do not have the courage to push forward.

But many governments, public opinion leaders, media outlets and communicators, and certainly scientists, have pressed forward precisely this idea. That is why the climate talks are arriving at such a critical moment in Paris. But what I think is the essential message is that governments are more and more aware and willing to do more and to agree on a change of course. I think among those governments, the government of China is clearly joining world leadership in realizing that we are on a collision course with our own planet.

What do you think is the most important factor in achieving a successful new agreement at the Paris conference? 

Leadership. But in the end, it is about the Africans, the economic superpowers, the Europeans, the Americans, the Canadians, the Japanese, the Indians, the Brazilians and the new emerging economies all coming together, and not only realizing how serious the problem is, but agreeing that something needs to be done about it. I think a robust agreement needs to focus on a very clear objective. So, the two degree bar, I think, is a good suggestion. And perhaps the key to the agreement is not seeing what we are advocating for as a problem, as a difficulty, but seeing it actually as an opportunity.

How can the international cooperation on climate change be improved? How the transfer of technology to developing countries be enabled? 

I think that international cooperation on climate change is really at its best right now. International climate talks happen all throughout the year and end up in the major conference around a number of legally binding agreements. We also have a disaster risk reduction forum which resulted in the Kyoto Protocol.

Third, we have the support of all that, which is the big discussion on the development and on finance for development, which happened at the summit in New York around the Sustainable Development Goals, Agenda 2030, and the Addis Ababa Action Plan on how to finance Agenda 2030. So, there is no shortage of international cooperation.

There is the very strong decision made by China to support South-South cooperation on climate.

Technology transfer is one of the big pending items, one of the very difficult issues that has not been resolved, and where we need to work harder to generate opportunities for that.

The reason why technology is not transferred is because you need to invest a lot to produce technology. The company that has invested wants to recover as much profit as possible from that investment.

Technology that is owned by rich or richer countries needs to be put at the disposal as quickly as possible and as cheaply as possible to very poor countries. Very poor countries will never have the possibility of investing, developing, or buying that technology. I think it makes sense for the owner of these technologies to do joint ventures, so that the technologies are put at their disposal.

Chinese President Xi Jinping announced during the UN Sustainable Development Summit in September that China would further cut its greenhouse gas emissions in a bid to lower its carbon density 40 to 45 percent by 2020. What is your assessment of China's efforts to address climate change and the measures that the Chinese Government has adopted to cut emissions? 

The three major efforts in the world to combat dangerous climate change are being made by the Europeans, by [U.S.] President [Barack] Obama, and by President Xi. These are the three very large political and economic transformational initiatives. And China has joined the top leadership in the transformation of the economy in favor of a green economy, and of what is called the ecological civilization in China. I have been participating the last three days in the meetings of the environmental council that advises the Chinese government on climate change policies and the discussions around the 13th Five-Year Plan were very serious.

Everybody in the world takes President Xi's announcement extremely seriously. First because we have seen in the past how announcements of this type have actually been followed by action. So there is credibility. And second, because it is important for China, it will result in changes in China, and therefore, it is absolutely fundamental for the world. So, we have assessed the commitments of the Chinese leadership as an extraordinary positive development in the direction of climate action.

During President Xi's visit to the United States in September, China announced that the country will set up a 20-billion-yuan (about $3.1 billion) South-South Cooperation Fund to help developing countries address climate change. What is the impact the initiative will have in achieving the sustainable development goals after 2015? 

We need to see how that will be articulated and what the architecture for the delivery of climate finances will be. We welcome the announcement; it is extremely important. We would have liked that funding to go to the Green Climate Fund. That would have been a good idea, but of course China will decide the best way in which it wishes to deliver South-South cooperation to all the southern partners. You see, in the end, rich economies have the resources to do what they need to do. It is the poor economies of the south that do not have the means to fight against dangerous climate change. So, that's why the Green Climate Fund and other financial architectures are being set up.

We are looking forward to knowing more about how this announcement will materialize, and how eventually, the UN and UNDP in particular can contribute. Let's not forget that we are the main multilateral provider of climate aid. So, we would certainly welcome it if there is a possibility of being associated with assisting China in the delivery of that South-South cooperation.

How can the Chinese Government and companies boost the low-carbon economy? 

There's many ways in which the Chinese Government can and actually is trying to transform the Chinese economy to a low carbon one. Obviously, reducing the weight of coal in the economy, and in China's energy mix is one. I don't know any [non-Chinese] city in the world that has so many electric motorbikes. No [other] city in the world has done that kind of progress. That's very clear progress toward the result.

But my point is that we need to do systems thinking. We have now all electric motorbikes, but those electric motorbikes are filled with electricity that is produced by coal plants, and not by hydro. Somehow the solution that you have put forward is not full because you haven't thought about the systems, about the chain that ends up feeding that solution. So that's why we were saying its symptoms and elements are good, but they need to be part of the system that is transformational in the economy.

To give a straight answer, I think the Chinese Government has two responsibilities. It has the responsibility as the government of the one of the biggest countries in the world, and it has the responsibility as a global player in the international community. As such, it can help arrive at an agreement in Paris, and be a good international cooperative citizen, which it is. It is increasingly being seen as contributing to international solutions. As a national government, it can absolutely drive its private sector, its development, the development of new cities and the development of new industries toward more sustainable development parts. I think it is doing that precisely. Some of the results are not visible yet because of the speed of the development that China is witnessing.

I think that the obligation of the UN is to ask governments to do more. So I would say China can do more.

Copyedited by Mara Lee Durrell

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