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WASHINGTON, Jul 11 2013 (IPS) - The United States and China have agreed on a suite of potentially far-reaching initiatives aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions in the world’s two largest economies and largest polluters.
Environmental groups are applauding initial reports of the agreements, arrived at during high-level talks here on Wednesday and Thursday. Further, there is also a sense that the discussions indicated a warming of relations between the two powers that could constitute the basis for an important new cooperative relationship at international negotiations on climate change.
“I thought it was one of the best sessions for climate change I’ve ever sat in,” a senior official in President Barack Obama’s administration, speaking on background, told reporters Thursday. “Not only were they high-level officials on both sides, but I thought that there was candid discussion, interesting discussion, and most importantly, proposals for cooperation moving forward.”
As unveiled Wednesday and further refined Thursday, the two countries have agreed to jointly focus on five broad areas. These include cutting down on emissions from heavy transport, strengthening energy efficiency, and improving the collection of greenhouse gas-related data.
Washington and Beijing will also step up research into new “carbon capture” technologies at coal-fired power plants, and collaborate on building new “smart” electrical grids that are both more efficient and can more easily incorporate renewable energy sources and distributed generation.
The talks also advanced modalities behind a landmark agreement struck between Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping in June to reduce the amount of HFCs, “super-greenhouse gases” used in refrigeration and air conditioning, the two countries use and produce.
“They’re clearly addressing some of the largest sectors in terms of greenhouse gas emissions – buildings, transportation and power, which together constitute the majority of emissions for both countries,” Alden Meyer, director of the Washington office of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a watchdog group, told IPS.
“For the moment, however, it’s hard to gauge the actual impact on emissions without knowing more of the details. The most fundamental question is whether these initiatives will merely help the two countries meet already-stated emissions-reductions goals between now and 2020. That would still be good, of course, but it wouldn’t be adding additional ambition to the global effort.”
Current U.S. policy revolves around a 17 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions below 2005 levels by 2020. For China, the central goal is to cut its economy’s “carbon intensity” by 40 to 45 percent, also by the end of the decade.
Yet Meyer notes that “everyone agrees” that both countries need to do far more if there is to be any chance of keeping the global temperature rise below two degrees Celsius by the end of the century, the current international goal that climate scientists warn constitutes a dangerous cut-off point.
The talks are also being seen as a key success on the part of the new U.S. secretary of state, John Kerry, long known for his climate advocacy. Kerry was integral in setting up a new U.S.-China working group on climate, and reports suggest the secretary of state has been actively engaging in this way in nearly every country he visits.
“This is no longer a side issue – Kerry has made climate into a centrepiece of political discussions, elevating it to the top tier of the geopolitical agenda, up there with security and economic issues,” Meyer notes. “That’s also being helped by the recent push by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the International Energy Agency to warn that this is a major threat to development and the world economy alike.”
Patching the disconnect
Climate change was not the only issue under discussion during the two-day U.S.-China summit, known as the Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED). But the talks did showcase the initial results of the bilateral working group on climate, set up in April, the final report of which can be found here.
“One of the great features this year is the special sessions on climate change and energy security, so we envision smaller sessions with a very focused agenda,” an Obama administration official told reporters in a briefing Monday.
“We want to demonstrate to the world that the two largest economies in the world can cooperate in this century to help tackle these environmental challenges … We’re hoping that at the end, we can cite some concrete examples of our cooperation through reduced emissions.”
Nor are the five initiatives outlined this week planned to be the end of the new U.S.-China cooperation. The working group on climate is reportedly working unusually intensively, a schedule that is expected to continue.
By October, the group is expected to agree on the implementation details for the first five initiatives. Thereafter, the Obama administration has suggested that climate issues will remain on the annual S&ED agenda, which will include annual review of implementation of previous initiatives and the assumption that new ones will be launched.
The results from this week’s discussions could now be used as a springboard to jolt ongoing international negotiations in the lead-up to a Paris summit, in 2015, where world leaders will be required to fashion a new global deal on climate change.
“There is renewed momentum between the U.S. and China on climate change. Bilateral efforts between these two countries are essential – and this collaboration can inject additional vigour in tackling climate change around the world,” Jennifer Morgan, director of the Climate and Energy Program at the World Resources Institute, a Washington think tank, said in a statement.
“These actions can help build trust and enhance cooperation between these two major countries. The benefits of joint action are clear. Now, we need them to follow up with actions that will drive down global emissions and take advantage of economic opportunities in a low-carbon future.”
UCS’s Meyer notes that the disconnect between the United States and China on the way forward on climate action has been a key obstacle in the international talks over the past several years.
“To the extent that they’re now cooperating on the ground, hopefully that will spill over into a more useful partnership in the negotiations for a post-2020 deal,” he says.
“In Paris in 2015 we’ll need broad engagement and cooperation among leaders of major countries, which is what we didn’t have going into the Copenhagen summit [in 2009]. To have this new relationship at the leadership level more than two years out from the Paris talks is a good thing – this level of engagement among leaders will be essential.”
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