US, China Climate Talks: Getting Warmer

| Wed Nov. 18, 2009 12:50 PM PST

World leaders may have failed to lay the necessary groundwork to sign a climate treaty in Copenhagen. But some good news did emerge from President's Obama's trip to China this week. Obama's meeting with Chinese president Hu Jintao on Tuesday provided a few hopeful clues that the world's two heavyweight polluters are inching toward a climate consensus.

China and the US account for roughly 37 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, so what they decide to do about climate change will determine the success or failure of a global treaty. Following the meeting, Obama said that he and Hu had agreed that any treaty at Copenhagen should have an "immediate operational effect." He added, "We agreed that each of us would take significant mitigation actions and stand behind these commitments."

Of course, with any international negotiation the devil is in how you define vague terms like "significant mitigation actions." Obama and Hu's announcement was short on specifics, although a joint statement said they had agreed to collaborate on, among other things, designing electric and other clean-fuel vehicles, improving the energy efficiency of building stock, and developing carbon-capture-and-sequestration for coal plants, according to the New York Times.

But perhaps the most significant development was that the leaders appeared to agree that China and the US can take different paths to reducing emissions. Hu touted the acknowledgement that the two nations could have "common but differentiated responsibilities." Translation? This language allows for a scenario in which rapidly developing countries like China commit to reducing emissions—but not at the same level as developed nations.

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The US and other major developed nations are expected to sign on to firm overall emissions reductions. The Chinese have said that they will at least commit to a binding agreement on reducing their greenhouse gas intensity. That means China could still continue emitting more as its economy grows, as long as the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per unit of GDP drops. (Hu said in September that China would reduce the amount of carbon dioxide they produce per unit of GDP by a "notable margin" by 2020.)

That doesn't guarantee an overall drop in emissions, at least not yet. But it's a solid commitment from a country whose economy has been expanding at a ferocious pace. As Taiya Smith, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, explained in testimony on international climate efforts on Tuesday, the Chinese dream is "like the American dream, but on steroids."

Now it's America's turn. Obama seemed to indicate that he believes US negotiators will put a solid figure for US emmissions cuts on the table at Copenhagen. That's the big piece of the puzzle that the world is waiting for.

 

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