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China confronts global warming dilemma

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China’s energy demand is projected to rise so steeply in coming decades that Beijing is expected to continue to build wind-farms, hydropower stations, and nuclear facilities alongside new coal-fired power plants, all in staggering numbers.

Climate change has only relatively recently emerged as a focus of government and public attention in China. Within China, local environmental problems — such as toxic factory accidents and rising cases of cancers along polluted rivers — frequently make newspaper headlines. Until the 2008 storms, though, climate change seemed a more distant and abstract concern.

As Wen Bo, a prominent environmentalist in Beijing explains: “In China, you must remember there are so many very immediate problems — environmental health, air pollution, and water quality.”

Informal consulting, not lobbying
The government issued its first white paper on the potential impacts of climate change in 2007, concluding that China’s vulnerability to rising sea levels and desertification was among the most severe worldwide. That finding galvanized further attention and also signaled the boundaries of acceptable public discourse — always a concern in a country with tight controls on public expression.

The following year there began to be more frequent mentions of climate change in Chinese newspapers and at academic conferences, accelerating after the 2008 storms.

China today remains a nation ruled by an authoritarian one-party government. Thus, as with all matters deemed essential to the national interest, it is the country’s top leadership that drives the national debate on climate change.

Going into the Copenhagen talks — which some say present China with an opportunity to improve its image in the international arena — China’s negotiating position will be determined by a special inter-departmental climate committee chaired by Premier Wen Jiabao. Several ministries will be represented, most significantly the National Development and Reform Commission, China’s key economic ministry.

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