US and China Further Lower Expectations for Copenhagen Conference
In a carefully worded statement made yesterday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called UN climate talks in Copenhagen a “steppingstone” toward a global climate agreement, according to the New York Times. For those readers familiar with diplomatic euphemisms, Secretary Clinton’s remarks comprise both a declaration of the United State’s continued commitment to climate change legislation, as well as an acknowledgment that next month’s talks, while a step in the right direction, will most likely not result in a final international deal to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
Speaking at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Singapore, Clinton described the upcoming talks as “pivotal,” promising that the United States is “prepared to assume our share of responsibility” in addressing climate change. She then outlined the “major issues” facing climate-pact negotiators, which included adaptation, financing, technology cooperation, dissemination of technology, and forest preservation. “We are prepared to support a global climate fund that will support adaptation and mitigation efforts and a matching entity to help developing countries match needs with available resources,” she said, perhaps hoping to assuage developing countries worried that the financial weight of climate regulation will fall too heavily upon them.
Yet Clinton’s remarks were not all so cheery. She implicitly acknowledged tensions between the United States and China concerning the upcoming climate-change talks, which have led many analysts and negotiators to believe that a final deal will not be reached this year. While Clinton refrained from pointing fingers, there can be little doubt whom she had in mind when insisting that all countries participating in the talks do their fair share; for years, the United States has pressured China—the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases—to adopt stringent emissions caps, a proposition that China has repeatedly refused. Whether or not the United States and China can see eye to eye on this matter may make or break the deal.
According to Todd Stern, the State Department’s Special Envoy for Climate Change, “[t]he Chinese absolutely have to cap their emissions in the sense of having them reduced significantly as compared to where their trend line is. China could make a reduction twice as ambitious as the US is doing, and that would still involve their emissions going up somewhere from where they are now.”
Unsurprisingly, China responded to US exhortations in kind. Making his own highly calculated remarks at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said, “Climate change is an enormous challenge faced by all of mankind and requires a cooperative response by all countries. China is willing to make positive efforts with all sides and contribute to the promotion of a fair and reasonable result at the Copenhagen meeting.” However, Yang stated that primary responsibility for climate change still falls on the United States and other developed nations, arguing that although China has surpassed the United States as the world’s top carbon emitter, its per capita emissions—based on its huge population of 1.3 billion people—are much lower than those of the United States.
Yang’s comments are in line with China’s longstanding stance on climate change policy. Huang Renwei, of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, has argued that developed countries—namely the United States—should lead the way in adopting climate regulation. Specifically, Renwei and other scientists have asked that the United States make larger emissions cuts than those already pledged, and that developed countries contribute between .05 and 1 percent of their GDP to help developing countries deal with global warming. Furthermore, the Chinese government has pointed out that instead of capping emissions, it has taken other measures to curb climate change, including improving energy efficiency by 20 percent by 2010 and planting trees over an area the size of California.
The result of all this back-and-forth has been a sort of diplomatic standoff. In the months leading up to the Copenhagen talks, the United States has attempted to diffuse tensions and negotiate privately with China. US President Barack Obama will visit Beijing and Shanghai next week, no doubt hoping to sit down with Chinese officials and discuss climate change policy before meeting again in Copenhagen. During the visit, it’s likely that the two country’s presidents will disclose their bottom lines on policy issues, although, according to Special Envoy Stern, “[w]e are not trying to cut some separate deals. We’ll try to get as much alliance as possible [between China and the United States] to get a deal in Copenhagen.”
The sooner the better. Earlier this week the International Energy Agency warned that delaying a climate-change deal could make it harder to limit global temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius, and might add massive costs to the already staggering $10.5 trillion needed to shift to low-carbon energy by 2030. “We calculate that each year of delay…would add approximately $500 billion to the global incremental investment cost of $10.5 trillion for the period 2010-2030,” the IEA said. “A delay of just a few years would probably render that goal completely out of reach.” Perhaps that will give negotiators some incentive.