Global Economics

Rehabilitation for China's Top Man in Copenhagen


Four years after resigning to take responsibility for a spill that poisoned drinking water for 3 million, Xie Zhenhua is China's top official at climate talks

By Bloomberg News

(Bloomberg) — Xie Zhenhua was head of China's state environmental protection agency in 2005 when a toxic spill almost ended his career. Four years later, Xie leads a Chinese delegation at odds with the U.S. at Copenhagen's climate talks.

Xie, who resigned after an explosion at a PetroChina Co. plant spilled toxic chemicals into the Songhua River, is now in the Danish capital advocating China's position that richer countries such as the United States should bear most of the burden for cutting carbon emissions blamed for global warming.

China, the biggest CO2 emitter and fastest-growing major economy, has bristled under criticism from envoys including Japan's Sakihito Ozawa who say any climate deal should contain numerical greenhouse-gas emissions targets for the worst polluters. Xie, 60, says nations like the U.S. created the problem and should agree to large cuts at the climate talks, not developing countries whose growth would be unfairly crimped.

"Given the current situation, no country can reduce carbon-dioxide emissions so much when they are at that stage of development," Xie told China Central Television on Dec. 7 from Copenhagen. Xie declined a Bloomberg request for an interview.

"It is not reasonable and scientifically sound to make such demands of China," Xie told reporters, CCTV said.

China wants developed countries including the U.S., Japan and European Union members to give more financial and technical support to poorer nations to help curb the greenhouse gases that scientists say lead to climate change.

The U.S. and many industrialized nations, conversely, say it's critical that China and developing countries agree to a treaty that includes a way to measure, report and verify emission cuts.

China's Argument

China's argument that it has a per capita gross domestic product less than one-tenth of the U.S. with about 150 million people — or half the U.S.'s population — living in poverty hasn't resonated with President Barack Obama's climate envoy.

Responding to criticism from China that the U.S. isn't doing enough to cut greenhouse gases, U.S. negotiator Todd Stern said China must be a "major player" in the push to curb global emissions.

"The country whose emissions are going up dramatically, really dramatically, is China," Stern said in Copenhagen on Dec. 9.

China's cabinet on Nov. 26 said it will cut output of carbon dioxide per unit of gross domestic product by 40 percent to 45 percent from 2005 levels. Later that night, Xie, who brings 27 years of experience in environmental protection work to Copenhagen, told reporters meeting that goal would require a huge effort.

'Personable, Approachable'

"Both Xie Zhenhua and Todd Stern are personable, approachable individuals as well as tough negotiators who do a good job in representing their own country's interests," said Barbara Finamore, China program director for the U.S.-based Natural Resources Defense Council.

Finamore has worked with Xie since he was an environmental official almost two decades ago.

A 2007 profile in the official Xinhua Daily Telegraph labeled Xie "the world's most senior environmental protection chief," attributing the Chinese envoy's rehabilitation after his resignation two years earlier to his ability and because he "dared to take responsibility."

Like President Hu Jintao and Vice President Xi Jinping, Xie is a graduate of Beijing's Tsinghua University, where he studied engineering physics, according to his official biography.

Xie, to be joined by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in the Copenhagen negotiations that end Dec. 18, had to overcome a career-jeopardizing ecological disaster to even get to Denmark.

International Incident

The 2005 explosion at the PetroChina plant shut off drinking water supplies for 3 million people and became an international incident after it threatened to contaminate fish and water supplies for the Russian region of Khabarovsk, downstream from the spill.

The spill led to Xie's resignation after China's cabinet said his organization hadn't "paid due importance to the incident."

A year later, Xie, a native of the northeastern coastal city of Tianjin, was back in government as a vice chairman of China's National Development and Reform Commission, the government super-ministry that oversees industrial policy.

Xie's portfolio now includes resource conservation, environmental protection and climate change. He holds ministerial rank and reports directly to the ruling Communist Party, according to his job description on the NDRC Web site.

Known to Criticize

The bespectacled Xie has shown he isn't afraid to criticize his counterparts.

At a March appearance at Washington's Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Xie blasted a proposal by U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu to put tariffs on products from countries that didn't try to curb carbon emissions as "using climate protection as an excuse to implement trade protectionism."

To contact Bloomberg staff on this story: Michael Forsythe in Beijing at +86-10-6649-7580 or mforsythe@bloomberg.net. Xiao Yu in Beijing at +86-6649-7564 yxiao@bloomberg.net


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