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CLIMATE CHANGE: U.S., China Seek Common Ground

Matthew Berger

UNITED NATIONS, Jun 3 2009 (IPS) - As the slew of U.S. officials visiting Beijing continued with Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s visit this past weekend, it is clear the Barack Obama administration is taking a much more active approach to relations with China than in years past. This shift is probably most clear, and most crucial, in the field of climate change.

Climate change talks continue this week in Bonn ahead of December’s United Nations-sponsored talks in Copenhagen, which will try to determine a successor to the Kyoto Protocol. Among the significant changes in the 12 years since the protocol was adopted is the increase in the political will of the U.S. to act on climate change and in the carbon emissions of China.

Together, these two factors mean a U.S.-China bilateral agreement prior to Copenhagen should be both more likely than in previous years and more necessary. The two sides, however, remain far apart.

The U.S. and China are the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases, combining for over 40 percent of global carbon emissions. But China’s share has grown feverishly since the Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997.

“In 2006, China added enough coal-fired power capacity to emit over 500 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year for the next 40 years,” Elizabeth Economy, director for Asian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, told IPS. “This wipes out the EU’s entire Kyoto reduction commitment of 300 million tonnes.”

Economy says China is the world’s largest emitter of carbon, and “without a dramatic reshaping of its economy, its emissions will be twice those of the United States by 2030.”

Prior to the Obama administration’s dual emphases of working with China and on climate change, the prospect for a serious global agreement to address these issues seemed dim.

This is largely because negotiations between the two countries not only directly impact the rate of climate change but the political arena in which this issue is addressed, as well.

When the U.S. shows it is committed to acting on climate change, a lot pieces fall into place, Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told IPS. And how far the U.S. is willing to go is largely based on how far China goes.

On Capitol Hill you cannot have a debate on climate action without the question being raised of what China is doing, he said. “What is agreed between China and the U.S. will have a huge impact on solving climate issues over the next 10 to 15 years.”

This is also true for countries like India, which is largely seen as being in the same middle ground between developing and industrial as China.

The actions of China might have an even bigger impact on those countries that are less developed than it and India. The Kyoto Protocol included the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities,” which recognises that the largest shares of greenhouse gas emissions are from industrial countries and that developing countries will likely increase their emissions in order to meet their needs.

It also, however, meant quantitative emissions limits were not placed on developing countries, including China, under the protocol.

Schmidt says he is not sure that the issue of who falls into the category of “developed” and “developing” will get resolved at Copenhagen, but that countries like China and India will clearly be expected to do more than less developed countries, probably with responsibilities that will evolve over time.

“The idea of common but differentiated responsibilities can remain a part of a Copenhagen agreement,” said Economy, “but I think there will be increasing pressure on China to actually assume some responsibilities, even if its cap is not – understandably – as aggressive as that of the United States.”

While visiting China last week with a U.S. congressional delegation, Senator John Kerry remarked that “Copenhagen will be defined by what the U.S. and China agree on in the next few weeks,” calling his discussions with Chinese officials on climate change the “most constructive and productive” he has had with them.

Overall, however, the talks were seen as only minimally productive. China recently released a position paper calling for a 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from industrial countries by 2020 and more funding from industrial countries for climate projects in developing projects. It also stressed that “common but differentiated responsibilities” remain a part of any Copenhagen agreement.

According to Economy, China is currently home to 42 percent of all “clean development mechanism” projects, in which industrialised countries invest in greenhouse-gas-reducing projects in developing countries in lieu of reducing their own emissions.

This does mean China is getting funds that might otherwise go to lesser-developed countries. “There are undoubtedly developing countries that feel that China has absorbed more than its fair share of greenhouse gas mitigation assistance,” said Economy.

Ultimately, though, both China and the U.S. made dramatic shifts toward more significant action on climate change since 1997 and in the past couple years.

While China has avoided setting firm targets or timetables for limiting emissions, it has taken action in other ways. It currently has some of the strictest auto emissions standards in the world, strong energy efficiency standards for industry, and is increasing its investment in renewable energy sources.

But these efforts, warns Economy, “act only at the margin in terms of influencing the country’s greenhouse gas emission trajectory.”

Schmidt agrees, but sees hope that U.S. engagement might “push China over the finish line” and into a more sustainable energy future.

And the U.S. has been engaging China fairly heavily since President Obama took office in January – a trend that is far from over. U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern will visit later this month, as will Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

“Within the first six months in office, nearly every Obama cabinet minister will have visited China,” says Schmidt. “Under the Bush administration, [Treasury Secretary Henry] Paulsen and [President George W.] Bush went once or twice.”

“By no stretch of the imagination,” he says, did climate change or China “get the amount of attention they are getting under the Obama administration.”

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