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In smoggy Tianjin, ‘structural imbalance’ is the hot topic

I didn’t appreciate how rare yesterday’s blue skies were in Tianjin. Today they were replaced with a thick, smoky haze that left a stinging feeling at the back of my throat.

A few hundred metres from my hotel a massive chimney spews a thick stream of brown-grey smog over the surrounding highways and homes. I think it’s providing the electricity I’m using right now.

The business of the day — day two of UN climate talks — fittingly started with a side event on coal use in China.

Today’s smog was brought to you by nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulphur oxides (SOx), ozone, carbon monoxide (CO) and other pollutants. Burning coal is a big contributor, along with industrial and traffic emissions.

China uses 43% of the world’s coal, around 15 times more than Australia. But Australia and South Africa rely more on coal for electricity, in percentage terms. While some figures show a continued acceleration in coal use as the Chinese economy booms, researchers from a Chinese university said at today’s event they expected coal use to peak before 2020 as hydro, gas, renewables and nuclear power come online.

And there is another imperative for China to get off coal: the 3000 workers who are killed every year through coal mining.

China has already shown it can turn things around and exceed targets. Emissions of sulphur oxide, the critical ingredient of acid rain, have peaked and are on the way down. In its 11th five-year plan China set a goal to improve energy efficiency by 20% by 2010, per unit of GDP. Through measures to get the largest companies to improve their act and to shut down the smallest most inefficient operators it is on track to meet it.

China pledged to improve emissions intensity by 40-45% by 2020 at Copenhagen and there is some very serious work going into meeting it (the depth and breadth of debate and action is a policy nerd’s wet dream). New building standards are coming, demand management is happening, forests are being planted and carbon pricing is hotly debated for the 12th five-year plan, due next year.

The researchers I heard from today seemed a little pessimistic that emissions trading would be included in the plan, but they are expecting a price on other pollutants (the NOx, SOx, etc that I’m breathing lungfuls of) and there is a chance carbon could be included in the pollution pricing regime.

The Chinese government delivered an official briefing to all comers in an overstuffed conference room. They referred to their over reliance on coal as a “structural imbalance”. I don’t think I’ve heard a Labor or Coalition politician brave enough to agree we face the same problem.

They touted their expansion plans for non-fossil fuels to meet 15% of energy needs by 2020, including 150 gigawatts of wind and 20 gigawatts of solar power.

In the official negotiations things aren’t showing as clear signs of progress. The morning session was scheduled to discuss options for the crucial legal form of the climate agreement, but was tied up in process issues and didn’t manage to even begin its task. The Australian delegation was visibly frustrated.

The afternoon session was a case of deja vu on the topic of developed country emissions reductions. Australia opened expressing deep frustration that the session would go nowhere except to repeat discussions over the last several years. The Australian delegation believes no progress can be made until the rules for the next commitment period of the Kyoto protocol are decided.

China and others expressed frustration that the bottom-up process of target setting would lead to a weak overall target from developed countries, stating its preference for a top-down, science-based approach. Closed door sessions are reportedly making better headway. We can hope that as the Cancun meeting approaches the closed door progress will spill over to some more positive visible signs.

International NGOs are now describing Copenhagen as a stalemate.  Breaking that stalemate is going to require all governments to find ways to move from often repeated positions and reach a compromise.

I dined at the Success noodle bar while a Tianjin bus rolled by inviting me to “feel delighted on public transport”. I’m hoping for some more of that positive attitude at the negotiations tomorrow.

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