China-US Talks: Tea, a Photo Op and Two Big Question Marks


Teapots, No Tempest
The upshot of U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern's three-day visit to Beijing to discuss an agreement on greenhouse gas emissions? The two countries are still talking.

Both sides have, not surprisingly, agreed to "push forward the Copenhagen climate change conference to yield positive results," China's foreign ministry spokesman said Tuesday, adding that both sides will continue to boost cooperation.

An agreement between the two countries -- something Stern has called a deal-breaker for a new climate accord at Copenhagen -- still rests on two big, unresolved and interrelated questions.First, how far will China go, given a) its insistence on "common but differentiated responsibilities," which asks the US and other developed countries to cut emissions by at least 40 percent from the 1990 level by 2020 and give aid to China, and b) China's desire to only institute an emissions intensity cap.

The former is a tall order for the U.S., where the current cap-and-trade bill would reduce emissions by only 4 percent over that period, and where aid for China is politically challenging. Meanwhile, an intensity cap, which would reduce greenhouse gases 20 percent per unit of GDP from 2005 to 2010 is feared to be toothless, considering China's questionable number crunching and that its economy is growing so fast that even with this cap, emissions would grow.

Also key may be China's willingness to make a bi-lateral agreement with the U.S. So far, China has insisted on multi-lateral talks, per the Bali agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which is currently holding discussions in Bonn, Germany -- a framework whose targets the U.S. has previously rejected.

In Bonn yesterday, China's climate change negotiator Li Gao struck a note of frustration. Li told Xinhua:

Developed countries have neither enough active responses to proposals from developing countries about emission-cut target by 2020, nor interests in providing funds and technologies to help developing countries adapt to climate change.

That raises the other big question: will the U.S. be flexible on its demands and take the lead?

Stern came to Beijing to push a bi-lateral agreement between the U.S. and China, he said last week, and for good reason: unless China agrees to some kind of emissions commitment, the U.S. commitment is unlikely to be very serious -- and vice versa.

But considering the U.S.-China trade interdependence, China's strong insistence on differentiated responsibilities, the U.S.'s past refusals to sign up for the Kyoto protocol, and the Obama administration's interest in the issue, if Copenhagen is to produce successful results, the U.S. will likely need to take a leadership role, and be willing to be more flexible in its demands than China.

Yesterday, Vice Premier Li Keqiang told Xinhua that "China has noticed the change of the U.S. government on climate change as well as the positive measures it has taken."

Still, the discussion surrounding the U.S.'s current plan for greenhouse gas emissions, the Waxman-Markey bill in Congress, might not look very encouraging to China.

On top of concerns about the cost of a cap-and-trade system, which has already weakened the bill's emissions target significantly, many have asked how effective a cap-and-trade system would be without China agreeing to a cap too.

Ultimately, China won't agree to serious caps unless the U.S. agrees to serious caps, and political willingness to impose strong caps in the U.S. seems unlikely without China's willingness to do the same.

What About Green Aid?
There is another way to encourage China to agree to an emissions target, Chinese officials have indicated: give China and other developing countries a kind of "green aid," or technology and money totalling 1 per cent of developed countries' GDP per year. This kind of green technology transfer alone, say some economists, could help reduce China's emissions dramatically.

But the political will in the U.S. for that kind of aid is all but absent, as China Environmental Law points out. After a trip to China last week, Republican Congressman F. James Sensenbrenner summed up attitudes about the US giving away 1 per cent of its GDP:

For the United States that's $140 billion dollars a year. That money will be borrowed and we will be borrowing it from China as well as other donor nations. And to borrow this amount of money, to turn around and give it back makes no sense whatsoever and I think the Congress will reject it overwhelmingly if it is submitted.

Complicating things even further is that China's demands have been roundly scoffed at by Western officials. "The proposal has been privately dismissed by western diplomats as posturing, but in public officials have been careful to adopt a conciliatory tone," writes the Financial Times.

In the New York Times, John Broder and Jonathan Ansfield summarize the continuing distance between China and the U.S.:

The Obama administration has pledged to be a leader in the talks that culminate in December in Copenhagen, although it is far from clear that Congress has the will to approve emissions targets and furnish enough aid to developing countries to satisfy the Europeans, Chinese, Indians, Brazilians and other major participants. Mr. Stern described the demands from China and other countries as "not serious," and said the United States was "jumping as high as the political system will tolerate."

As a measure of how far apart the two nations are, China says the United States should reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. The bill before Congress, which could be further weakened, now calls for less than a 4 percent reduction over that period.

The Chinese have begun to consider a series of unilateral actions to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, stepping up production of renewable electricity and increasing the efficiency of their manufacturing, buildings and vehicles. But Beijing insists it will not sacrifice China's economy to meet the demands of outsiders, particularly those in the developed world that are responsible for the vast majority of human-caused carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere.


One Way Forward: U.S. First, Focus on Action
Mutually-agreed targets would be ideal. But at this point the best hope for progress at Copenhagen may lie with the U.S. taking a lead, however modest, on capping emissions. China, which is already serious about energy efficiency could follow with emissions intensity targets, and benefit from a more modest technology transfer program than the one it desires, but which would nonetheless help both countries to build cleaner technology.

This is the gist of the recommendations issued in a new memo by Julian Wong and Andrew Light at the Center for American Progress. Wong and Light push for "carbon cap equivalents," which take into account "a multitude of complementary actions that provide meaningful emissions reductions compared to a business-as-usual scenario."

They urge

acknowledging and understanding the effects of the full range of China's climate actions outside of its lack of hard caps on carbon emissions. A more extensive analysis should quiet the naysayers on Capitol Hill that use the false excuse of Chinese inaction to block the passage of the historic climate and energy bill in the U.S. Congress.

On that note, last week Jeffrey Sachs told TreeHugger that the U.S. and China need to focus on new technologies, and not get bogged down in complex negotiations over targets.

In a talk last month, energy secretary Steven Chu said that action was more important than percentages and pledges for a successful outcome at Copenhagen, according to the AP.

"The success of Copenhagen will be determined by what countries really do. To define it as failure if developing countries do not sign up to certain criteria is not constructive at all," he said.

More on U.S.-China Talks on TreeHugger
West "Responsible" For Third of China's CO2 Emissions
As China Rejects Carbon Caps, Krugman Pushes Carbon Tariffs
Will China and the US Go Big on Climate Cooperation?

Tags: Beijing | China | Copenhagen