Obama's November Visit to Beijing Could Seal US-China Climate Deal

us china flag

The success of the December scheduled Copenhagen climate talks hangs in balance as the developed and developing countries continue to argue over issues ranging from extent of emission reduction targets to funding and technology transfer.

But the United States under the leadership of President Obama seems committed to find a way out wherein an international treaty could be formulated having more scientifically backed emission reduction targets with maximum number of member states contributing in their own capacities to reduce their carbon footprints.

In an attempt to build global consensus over the clauses of the climate treaty draft to be discussed at Copenhagen the United States government has been busy in talks with developing countries like India, China and Brazil. With the intention to put weight behind those negotiations and aiming to transform promises into legally binding emission reduction targets President Obama will be visiting China in November.

Even though trade and economic restructuring will be on top of the agenda but given the meeting’s date so close to the Copenhagen talks it is possible that a bilateral agreement covering emission reductions, investments in renewable energy project and technology transfer could be signed.

Initiation of Negotiations

Quite surprisingly the negotiations between American and Chinese diplomats started during the last months of the Bush presidency. A group of delegates from the Democratic and Republican parties visited China in order kick start negotiations hoping to boost cooperation in reducing carbon emissions while maintaining steady economic growth rates and strong trade ties.

The first communications, in the autumn of 2007, were initiated by the Chinese. Xie Zhenhua, the vice-chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission, the country’s central economic planning body, made the first move by expressing interest in a co-operative effort on carbon capture and storage and other technologies with the US.

The negotiations accelerated after President Obama came into office. With the Obama administration came the drastic change in the climate policy of the United States. As the talks went ahead the possibility of China agreeing to sectoral emission reductions also grew.

In addition to the drastic change in the US climate policy Chinese introspection regarding the great amount of pollution caused by its booming industrial sector also played a huge role in softening China’s stance on the issue of reducing carbon emissions.

Some major issues discussed during the talks were:

  • Using existing technologies to produce a 20% cut in carbon emissions by 2010.
  • Co-operating on new technology including carbon capture and storage and fuel efficiency for cars.
  • The US and China signing up to a global climate change deal in Copenhagen.

Being the two largest greenhouse gas emitters it was important that the two nations moved fast on these issues reaching some kind of agreement which could then drive an international agreement on curbing carbon emissions. And the concentrated efforts of the delegates did bear fruit.

Positive Changes

President Obama had answered emphatically to the critics of America’s climate policies and the European Union had finally found the big supporter it needed in order to push its strict environmental policies on the global stage. No longer the developing countries can dodge demands for increased cooperation arguing that the world’s largest polluter, the United States, was not doing enough.

Developing countries were under pressure and China, the largest polluter among them, responded to the pressure, positively. With the ongoing talks and exchange of views and opening up of new areas for cooperation obstacles for a possible emission reduction deal were slowly but surely vanishing away.

In addition to this enhanced international cooperation China was also undergoing a crucial phase of introspection. After the hurried manner in which polluting industries were closed down and restrictions were imposed on commercial vehicles was imposed in order to tweak the air quality in time for the 2008 Olympics, it seemed that the Chinese officials realized the dismal state of environment in the country and the urgent need to take swift action to reduce pollution.

The Chinese government realized that pollution was not only an international issue but also a domestic one which affected its own people too.

china windThe Chinese government is often accused by environmental groups of pursuing economic growth at the expense of environment.

China has often given go ahead to controversial projects and has even tried to censor information about potential adverse impacts of infrastructure projects.

However, the situation is starting to change a bit. China recently rejected projects worth $69 billion which would have added to its carbon footprint.

There are many other encouraging signs that point  to a colossal change in China’s energy and environment policy. China is working on the world’s largest solar power plant with a capacity of  one gigawatt. Its petroleum industries are looking to shift to cleaner fuels like natural gas and  the  government has set a goal of generating 20 percent energy from renewable sources by 2020.

US-China Cooperation

After months of discussions a memorandum of  understanding was signed between China and United States during Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent visit to the country. The deal aims to increase cooperation in the field of energy efficiency, green buildings and development of eco cities.

clinton china visit

There is a strong possibility of China agreeing to voluntary and sectoral emission reductions. Such an agreement would do wonders for the chances of success at Copenhagen.

It would finally bridge the gap between developed and developing countries. China’s move to agree to emission cuts would not only put pressure on other developing countries to follow suit but also on developed countries which are trying to tweak emission data and suggesting weaker emission reduction goals.

Few possible driving forces behind China’s sudden change in policy could be the talk of international carbon tax and the strategic edge China would gain by working along side the developed countries.

A unilateral carbon tax, as proposed in the climate change bill pending vote in the US Congress, can have devastating impact on the Chinese economy. Chinese goods are exported world over and enjoy pricing edge over domestic products given the availability of cheap raw materials and labor costs. A carbon tax would make them expensive and more carbon intensive products.

In addition to the sharing of ideas, professionals and technologies agreed up on in the memorandum China will also gain investments in clean energy projects from American companies. China is also in talks with Britain over sharing the carbon capture and storage technology.

Other Developing Countries

China being the largest of the developing economies has been the face of the developing and poor countries at the climate change treaty negotiations. Other advanced developing countries like India, Brazil and South Africa with China have been the face of developing countries’ resistance against mandatory emission reductions. Now with China considering possible sectoral emission reductions their negotiation leverage has certainly weakened.

Advanced developing countries have long argued that their ambitions of better standard of living and robust economic growth rates would be adversely impacted by emission reduction targets. But now that China is considering bold measures to cut emissions these countries are finding themselves in a fix as they would too be demanded to take similar actions.

indian enviro mnister The continuing discussions between China and the United States have become a major issue in the talks between diplomat of developing countries with the Indian environment minister raising the issue of China’s policy shift.

And although the minister got an assurance that China will be supporting the developing countries at Copenhagen it is very much a possibility that China could play play a major role in breaking the ice between the developed and developing countries thus boosting chances of an international deal.

Although the formal agreement on emission reduction targets still needs to clear many hurdles like the terms of technology transfer and mode and extent of financial help but the direction of negotiations is very encouraging.

President Obama visit to China just before the Copenhagen could possibly result in some kind agreement over these issues which could then clear the way for a possible international agreement on reducing carbon emissions.

Read more great articles on Celsias:

China Gradually Improves Environmental Transparency

Asian Water Supplies Require Substantial Overhaul

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Image 1: yunheisapunk Image 2: kaj17 Image 3: U.S. Department of State From Flickr Creative Commons

The views presented in the above article are author’s personal views and do not represent those of TERI/TERI University where the author is currently pursuing a Master’s degree.

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  • Posted on Sept. 9, 2009. Listed in:

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