BEIJING China is keen to halt growth in its greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, but lifting tens of millions out of poverty must remain its primary goal, the country's climate change ambassador said on Wednesday.
Yu Qingtai also said China was willing to thrash out emissions-cutting targets for rich nations at U.N.-led talks later this year, dropping an earlier demand for a reduction of at least 40 percent, though Beijing still considers that figure "fair."
"There is no one in the world who is more keen than us to see China reach its emissions peak as early as possible," Yu said.
China's output of greenhouse gases is rising fast, and Beijing has refused to say when it might be able to reverse that growth. Yu's comments were a rare acknowledgement by a senior official of the threat these emissions pose to the country.
"We know that addressing climate change is in the fundamental interests of our country," he told a news conference.
A government briefing issued beforehand laid out the scale of the challenge. China has already seen temperatures climb faster than the global average, sea levels rise along its heavily populated coast, and rainfall declining in the dry north while increasing the flood-prone south.
But Yu said China, the world's top emitter on an annual basis, was already making major contributions to slowing global warming and needed help to do more while fighting poverty.
Around 150 million Chinese citizens are mired in poverty, based on a U.N. benchmark of those living on less than $2 a day, Yu said, though China's domestic benchmark is slightly lower.
"Our country still has to improve people's lives and develop the economy while protecting the environment," he added.
Beijing says rich nations must give more technology and funds to developing nations, if a deal is to be struck at U.N.-led negotiations held this December in Copenhagen, where the world hopes to agree a new global framework to tackle climate change.
It also wants less emphasis on annual emissions, because on a per-capita basis and over the course of history countries such as China and India have contributed far less to the problems than their current industrial profile might suggest.
"CANNOT AFFORD FAILURE"
The vast amounts of money and political capital at stake mean hammering out a climate deal was always going to be difficult, and the financial crisis strained budgets and distracted leaders.
Yu said progress had been slow but he hoped the urgency of the situation would help focus negotiators' minds.
"We just have a short few months to Copenhagen," Yu said.
"I try to remain an optimist because the nature of the problem is such that we cannot afford a failure."
Asked whether China had abandoned a demand for a 40 percent cut in rich nation emissions by 2020, Yu said that a target for developed countries should be agreed in the talks.
"As the developed countries have a historical responsibility for climate change, they should continue to implement large emissions cuts after 2012," Yu said.
"A concrete figure has to be decided by the negotiations; we will get a result in Copenhagen," he said, but added Beijing still considered the 40 percent sought by developing countries in previous talks a "fair and rational" target.
He slammed rich nations for trying to escape obligations agreed under previous climate deals, or force excessive commitments from poorer countries.
Yu also defied critics who say Beijing is throwing up coal-fired power stations at a terrifying rate, and has little real interest in environmental concerns.
He pointed to a massive efficiency drive that is gathering speed after a slow start, and a push to make renewables 15 percent of the country's energy mix by 2020.
"Among all countries in the world, China is probably doing best in terms of achievements in reducing carbon emissions."
(Editing by David Fogarty)