BOSTON--Six months before a summit on a new climate change treaty, the United States and China seem to be moving along separate tracks to limit global warming, experts say.
Since the start of this year, advocates have raised hopes that the United States and China would be able to break an impasse over curbing greenhouse emissions in time for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen on Dec. 7-18.
An agreement between the world's two top sources of global warming gases is seen as key to a successful summit to replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which includes limits that expire in 2012.
Following a meeting with U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in Beijing on May 27, Premier Wen Jiabao pledged to "take the joint tackling of climate change as an important aspect of cooperation and push for positive results" in Copenhagen, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
But despite moves in Congress to require deep cuts in greenhouse emissions, Beijing has insisted that the West must do more before demanding that China should make its own reductions.
The question of how much each country should contribute to combat global warming is crucial, since critics on both sides say progress may slow if the burdens of reducing emissions are seen as unfairly shared.
Speaking to Xinhua on May 19, Xie Zhenhua, vice-minister of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), repeated the argument that China's average emissions are only a third of those of developed countries on a per capita basis, though total volume makes China the largest source in the world.
Demands on China to curb emissions at the expense of economic growth should be "fair and reasonable," said Xie. On May 20, the NDRC also released a position paper for the Copenhagen conference, calling on developed nations to reduce their emissions "by at least 40 percent below their 1990 level by 2020."
That is far more than the target set in landmark climate legislation approved by the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee on May 21.
The American Clean Energy and Security Act, authored by Democratic Representatives Henry Waxman, the committee chairman from California, and Edward Markey of Massachusetts, would cut emissions by 17 percent from 2005 levels in 2020. Reductions would rise to 42 percent by 2030 and 83 percent in 2050, the panel said.
After months of negotiation, the bill also included a controversial cap-and-trade system that would issue tradeable emissions permits to industry as an incentive to meet the targets. Supporters have hailed the legislation as a breakthrough.
"We are now one step closer to delivering on the promise of a new clean energy economy," President Barack Obama said in a statement. Waxman said a vote by the full House could come as soon as July, Bloomberg News reported.
Despite the progress, big gaps remain between the U.S. targets and China's demands. The NDRC's goal of a 40-percent cut by Western nations is actually greater than its previous demands for a reduction of 25-40 percent, based on estimates of a U.N. climate change panel.
Even the earlier demand represented a significant difference, because it used an earlier base year for comparison, said Elliot Diringer, vice president for international strategies at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change in Arlington, Virginia.
"They're saying 25 to 40 (percent) below 1990 levels as opposed to 2005 levels, so there does remain that gap," Diringer told Radio Free Asia.
Instead of offering its own reductions, China has been promoting its existing energy efficiency targets, implying that it will contribute to the climate effort on its own terms.
China says that energy consumption per unit of GDP has dropped by 10 percent from 2006 to 2008 under its five-year goal to improve efficiency by 20 percent in 2010, compared with 2005. Measures of major water and air pollutants have declined by 4.4 to nearly 9 percent, in line with five-year targets of 10 percent, the NDRC said.
At the EU-China summit in Prague on May 20, Wen appeared to signal that China would not budge from its positions, repeating a call for "common but differentiated responsibility" for climate change.
China 'pledge' unlikely
Diringer said China's statements suggest that it will not pledge at Copenhagen to cut greenhouse gases by any set volume, even if the United States does.
"I wouldn't anticipate that any agreement in Copenhagen or beyond ... would include hard caps for the developing countries--China and the others," he said. "We're looking at a post-2012 framework that has a mix of different commitment types."
U.N. negotiators are already circulating a 53-page draft text of an agreement to be discussed at a pre-Copenhagen meeting in Bonn on June 1-12. But the text is "packed full of multiple options, which at times go in different directions," the website euractiv.com said.
"More likely, what we could see in Copenhagen is an interim agreement where we work out the basic architecture of a post-2012 international agreement and then continue negotiating toward the specific commitments," said Diringer.
Daniela Salaverry, China program co-director at Pacific Environment, a San Francisco-based nongovernmental organization, said progress between the United States and China can still be made over the next six months.
"Copenhagen will be a huge missed opportunity if neither China nor the United States can make a commitment that they can stand by," Salaverry told RFA.
It is also possible that the two countries can make progress on climate change, even if they do not agree to measure their efforts in common terms, she said.
"I think that they will be proceeding on parallel tracks. They're not going to come together to be on the exact same page, just given the scale of China's population, China's development, and China's energy use, and also the United States' own energy use," Salaverry said.
"If they can be on parallel tracks, both moving in the same direction, that will be progress," she said.