U.S.-China Talks Boost Climate Efforts

U.S.-China talks advance cooperation on climate change.
By Michael Lelyveld
2009.03.30
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BOSTON--China has raised hopes for environmental cooperation with the United States despite differences that emerged during a Washington visit by leading officials this month.

On March 18, Xie Zhenhua, vice chairman of the National Development Reform Commission (NDRC), stressed a positive outlook for cooperation on climate change at a Washington meeting co-hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Global Environmental Institute of Beijing.

After years of disagreement over which country bears greater responsibility for global warming, Xie, China's top climate negotiator, voiced readiness to discuss joint action.

"China and the U.S. conducting joint dialogue and pragmatic cooperation on climate change will benefit not only the relations of the two countries but also the international cooperation and actions to address climate change."

"And the Chinese government is willing to cooperate with the United States in this regard," Xie said.

'Reasonable' expectations

Xie's statement came after meetings with U.S. energy and environmental officials, including Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

Xie praised President Barack Obama's goal of reducing harmful U.S. emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and cutting them 80 percent by 2050, calling it "a huge step forward."

Despite this ambitious target, though, Xie said the United States should do more, and outlined a series of steps that China is taking to curb energy waste and carbon dioxide (CO2) releases.

Xie also argued that the international community should be "reasonable" in its expectations of how much China should cut its pollution as a developing country, noting that "the majority of the emissions are to secure people's livelihood."

Together, the United States and China account for a combined 40 percent of the world's emissions of greenhouse gases, according to the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA).

The IEA estimates that China has already surpassed the United States as the world's largest source of global warming gases, though Western nations still produce more on a per capita basis.

A 'breakthrough'

While the arguments are familiar, moves toward cooperation are relatively new. Organizers of the conference disclosed that off-the-record discussions with Chinese officials have been taking place for over a year to promote cooperation.

In an interview with Radio Free Asia, Carnegie senior associate William Chandler, who led the dialogue effort, said cooperation has the potential to break the logjam over which country should take the blame for global warming.

"I think the prospect of U.S.-China collaboration on climate has completely changed from six months ago," Chandler said.

Chandler credited President Obama's new environmental policies, but added that China's willingness to engage with U.S. officials on climate change was "something of a breakthrough."

"These are discussions that simply didn't happen for many years before," said Chandler.

"That's not to say we have an agreement on what we're going to do, but to talk seriously at those levels and to get reports that the talks were positive is a big change."

Areas for cooperation

Xie's visit also built on the theme of environmental cooperation raised by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her visit to China in February, said Chandler.

The most promising areas for cooperation on current technologies include automobile fuel economy and energy efficiency in the industrial sector, he said.

Among future technologies, the two countries must work to develop carbon capture and storage, a plan for keeping CO2 emissions out of the atmosphere, Chandler said.

Despite the trend toward cooperation, differences also surfaced during the visit.

Chinese officials reacted strongly to a suggestion by Secretary Chu that if the United States enacts legislation to cap emissions, it could impose tariffs on imports from countries that do not in order to keep them from gaining a cost advantage.

"If country X doesn't do this, then I think we should look at considering perhaps duties that would offset that cost," Chu told a House Science and Technology Committee hearing on March 17, Reuters reported.

Speaking at Carnegie, Xie argued that global warming and carbon taxes are separate issues. "I oppose using climate change as an excuse to practice protectionism on trade," he said.

On March 16, Gao Li, director of the NDRC's Department of Climate Change, also argued that other countries should be held responsible for a large portion of China's CO2 emissions.

"About 15 percent to 25 percent of China's emissions come from the products which we make for the world, which should not be taken by us," Gao said at a meeting sponsored by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change in Washington.

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