US-China Climate Deal Elusive

Hopes fade for U.S.-China climate breakthrough.
By Michael Lelyveld
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BOSTON--Hopes are dimming for a climate change deal between the United States and China following a key U.N. meeting in Germany, experts say.

The two-week conference in Bonn that ended June 12 was called to craft an agreement that would follow the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on global warming. But despite a 200-page draft pact that will be subject to major revisions, the talks "produced little of substance," the Washington Post said.

The meeting was one of the last chances to strike a worldwide accord on curbing emissions before a December conference in Copenhagen, where 192 countries will consider targets to replace Kyoto commitments that expire in 2012.

Environmental groups are concerned that the lack of progress at Bonn means there may be no agreement at Copenhagen, or one that fails to slow climate change.

"I think it is a very tough question to figure out what kind of agreement there's going to be," said Damon Moglen, director of Greenpeace USA's global warming campaign, in a Radio Free Asia interview. "Key players are for the moment making gestures rather than having real negotiating positions."

Despite some hopeful signs earlier this year, the United States and China have yet to break through the impasse of how much each should contribute to controlling greenhouse gases. Without big steps by the world's two largest sources of emissions, other nations are unlikely to make major efforts.

Different standards

But the Bonn meeting saw little change in negotiating stands, although U.S. officials have accepted that China will not adopt caps on carbon dioxide emissions. As a developing country, China insists it will only pursue goals for energy efficiency while it argues that U.S. emissions cuts do not go far enough.

"China does not need to take the same actions that developed countries are taking, but it does need to take significant action," said U.S. Assistant Energy Secretary David Sandalow, the Financial Times reported.

So far, China is pursuing the same goal that it set in 2005, targeting a 20 percent decrease in energy use per unit of GDP by 2010. It is also seeking a 10-percent cut in major pollutants over the same period. It has yet to announce targets for its next Five-Year Plan.

The separate approaches mean that any accord in Copenhagen is likely to be based on different standards for different countries. The pact also seems unlikely to meet the goal of a 25 to 40 percent cut in greenhouse gases below 1990 levels by 2020, a level that the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has urged to avoid serious global warming effects.

On the positive side, both the United States and China are prepared to contribute in their own ways. On the negative side, their combined contributions will not come close to meeting the IPCC goals.

Moglen is highly critical of climate legislation in the U.S. Congress, which calls for a 17 percent drop in greenhouse gases from 2005 levels in 2020 and an 83 percent cut by 2050. Although some lawmakers argue that the measure already goes too far, Moglen is pushing Congress to go farther, saying the 2020 target is only 3 percent below 1990 levels at best.

"Certainly, Greenpeace and other organizations want to see a much stronger, more decisive, more visionary position on the part of the United States," he said.

China's position criticized

Moglen also criticized China's position, which draws the line at any limits that might affect its economic expansion, although it argues that developed nations should accept a full 40 percent cut.

"There is a discordance here," said Moglen. "China is saying on one hand that we need to use the most demanding targets, and yet they are also saying that they are not about to put at risk their economic growth." Instead, developing countries should pursue growth in new environmental technologies, he said.

But Michael Levi, director of the energy security and climate change program at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said criticism of the U.S. legislation authored by Democratic Representatives Henry Waxman of California and Edward Markey of Massachusetts has focused too much on the 2020 numbers.

"We're not going to see a U.S. commitment to cut its emissions by 40 percent," Levi told RFA. "The United States knows that, the other developed countries know that, and China knows that. The fundamental goal is to make deep reductions in the long term."

"What matters is that the short-term commitments show that we're on a path to achieving that, and that's where we should be focusing," Levi said.

Nations 'should cooperate'

The U.S. legislation includes a host of provisions that go beyond emissions reductions, including targets for renewable energy, efficiency measures, new building standards, and funds to prevent deforestation, he said.

Instead of debating, developed nations should cooperate to help China intensify its energy efficiency efforts, said Levi.

"The Chinese targets aren't enough, but they're a step in the right direction," he said.

Levi does not have high expectations for the Copenhagen conference, but he argues that there has been too much focus on the 25-40 percent figures for developed countries. The estimates represent a political rather than a scientific judgment on how the burden of emission reductions should be shared, he said.

"We're not going to have one deal that solves the problem for us," said Levi. "This is going to be an ongoing task for decades."





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