Climate Pact Uncertain

Prospects for a U.S.-China agreement on climate change are still uncertain.
2009-11-23
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By Michael Lelyveld

BOSTON—The outlook for a global warming treaty remains hazy despite new agreements between the United States and China, analysts say.

Although the two countries signed several accords last week during U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to China, they failed to reach a deal on a climate change treaty before a Dec. 7-18 conference in Copenhagen, experts said.

Expectations were low that Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao would break the long logjam that has stalled a new treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol, but environmentalists still held hopes.

“I’m a little disappointed that there was no breakthrough in a U.S.-China climate agreement, but not terribly surprised,” said William Chandler, an energy and climate expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Washington and Beijing have been locked in an impasse over commitments to cut greenhouse gases, with China insisting that the United States must do more before developing nations adopt binding curbs.

The two countries account for some 40 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, according to International Energy Agency estimates, so that little progress at Copenhagen may be possible without a U.S.-China deal.

New programs

On Nov. 17, the two presidents announced several new measures, including a U.S. $150 million (1 billion yuan) Clean Energy Research Center, an electric vehicle initiative, and an energy-efficiency action plan for buildings, factories, and appliances.

The new programs are “steps in the right direction,” Chandler said.

“They’re all very positive, very sensible, and I think they’re good for both countries,” he said.

But advocates are particularly concerned about statements made on Nov. 15 at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Singapore.

Several leaders reportedly said that only a political deal would be possible in Copenhagen with firm goals for emissions cuts to follow next year.

While it has been known for months that a binding treaty will take longer, Chandler fears a reported postponement will stall climate legislation in the U.S. Senate, which is considering a bill passed by the House in June.

“I think that’s troubling because it seems to take the pressure off U.S. legislators to act on this issue,” he said.

China is seen as unlikely to accept limits before the U.S. bill becomes law.

Despite the concerns, the “one agreement, two steps” approach now seems likely for Copenhagen, said Joanna Lewis, a Georgetown University assistant professor of science, technology and international affairs.

“It looks like progress toward meeting any substantial agreement in Copenhagen is going to be pushed back,” Lewis said.

“It reflects the fact that the United States is not ready to put numbers on the table when it comes to targets, and as a result very few other countries will be either.”

Slow movement

Lewis said the deadline has been tough because the Obama administration has had only a short time in office to push legislation through Congress before the Copenhagen meeting.

But China has also moved slowly.

Hu told the U.N. General Assembly two months ago that China planned to “cut carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by a notable margin.”

So far, Beijing hasn’t quantified what “notable” means.

“A carbon intensity target would be a huge step for China,” said Lewis, but the cut would have to be large to have any effect on total CO2 emissions.

China may not set targets until its next Five-Year Plan is announced.

‘Differentiated’ tack

Michael Levi, senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said the agreements reached in Beijing mean progress in reducing emissions and developing technology for further reductions.

“What we don’t have is agreement on the bottom-line numbers, which is something that no one was seriously expecting from this summit,” Levi said.

Levi noted that the joint U.S.-China statement outlines a “differentiated” approach for Copenhagen that has also been in the cards for months.

The treaty will “include emission reduction targets of developed countries and nationally appropriate mitigation actions of developing countries,” the statement said.

“That attempts to resolve the who-goes-first question by saying we both go first and we do it in December,” Levi said. But even this mixed list of goals may be hard.

Levi said the statement suggests that Obama will present a target for U.S. emissions cuts at Copenhagen, even if the goal may be flexible.

“It’s a risky strategy, but he appears to have decided that this is what he needs to do to take a leadership position in the discussions there,” Levi said.

Reported by Michael Lelyveld. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

CH. 1: MANDARIN | CANTONESE

CH. 2: VIETNAMESE | BURMESE | KOREAN

CH. 3: KHMER | LAO | UYGHUR

CH. 4: TIBETAN

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