U.S. Seeks Climate Breakthrough With China

U.S. moves to end climate change standoff with China.
By Michael Lelyveld
2009.04.28
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BOSTON--The United States is taking the first steps toward cutting greenhouse gas emissions, breaking an impasse with China over which country should go first, experts say.

The world's two biggest producers of carbon dioxide (CO2) have been at odds for years over which country should bear the burden of fighting global warming.

China has surpassed the United States as the largest CO2 source, according to the Paris-based International Energy Agency, but Chinese officials argue that its per capita emissions remain small as a developing country. Past emissions of industrialized nations should also be taken into account, they say.

"Whether or not we have surpassed the U.S. in emissions is in itself not important. We should look at the issue fairly and from a historic view," Xie Zhenhua, vice director of the National Development and Reform Commission, said last October.

But the impasse over which country will take the initiative in making cuts may soon be broken as the United States moves toward either regulating emissions or capping them by law.

"At this stage, it's only a matter of time and whether it is legislative or regulatory," said Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, in a Radio Free Asia interview.

Routes to reduction

The United States is pursuing two possible routes toward reductions. On April 17, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a finding that CO2 and five other greenhouse gases pose a danger to human health and welfare. The decision could lead to rules that would control emissions under the Clean Air Act of 1970.

Claussen said the finding was expected because the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the EPA to determine whether global warming emissions should be regulated in 2007. But it is unclear whether Congress will act first.

On April 22, the House Energy and Commerce Committee launched hearings on proposed legislation that could impose a "cap-and-trade" system to limit greenhouse gases.

Under the plan sponsored by the Democratic committee chairman, Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the government would issue or auction permits for emissions to industries, allowing them to trade credits for cuts.

The bill would reduce global warming gases 20 percent by 2020 and 83 percent by 2050 from 2005 levels. The European Union already has a cap-and-trade system.

The path to cuts is uncertain because of resistance among some lawmakers to the costs of a "carbon tax." Claussen said the White House would prefer the legislative route, but that control one way or another is now inevitable.

"Many signs are pointing in that direction. I think the real question is when," said Joanna Lewis, a China environmental expert and assistant professor at Georgetown University in Washington.

A major shift

Claussen and Lewis believe that a mandatory policy for CO2 cuts may be difficult to deliver in time for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, but both the see the emerging U.S. policy as a major shift from the past several years.

This week, the U.S. State Department is hosting a forum for envoys from the world's 17 major economies, including China and India, as part of the effort to forge a common policy on the climate issue.

Claussen indicated that she accepts parts of China's argument that the United States should take the initiative in addressing the problem.

"I know very well that China's emissions are now greater than ours, and at the rate they're going, they will be so huge that anything we or even Europe did would be dwarfed by comparison," she said. "But if you look at historic contributions, ... we ought to be taking the lead."

By the same token, China must respond with cuts of its own if there is to be any progress on global warming, said Claussen.

"You can't solve the problem unless there are major changes in China," she said. "There's no other way to look at this." While China has launched a campaign to improve energy efficiency, its total emissions are still growing rapidly, thanks largely to its annual consumption of over 2.7 billion tons of coal.

"The Chinese have to do some really serious things here, if we're going to address the issue at all," she said.

Setback for efforts

Claussen and other experts are concerned that China's 4-trillion-yuan ($585-billion) economic stimulus program may be a setback for environmental efforts.

On April 19, The New York Times reported that China has implemented a "green passage" policy that cuts environmental review times for industrial projects from 60 to as little as five days. In northern China's Hebei Province, four new cement plants won approvals in a single day in January, the paper said.

Lewis said the stimulus package has sent "mixed signals." The plan has included domestic support for the solar power industry, which has been hurt by the downturn in international trade, for example.

But other effects have been "more harmful," she said. The government's energy efficiency drive has been hurt by the latest push for high energy-consuming industries, like cement.

Claussen said she hoped the environmental impact of China's stimulus spending would be "short-lived."

"In the end, that won't work anymore if the world is going to get serious about climate change," she said.

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