The US-China climate change reports issued last week by the Asia Society/Pew Center on Global Climate Change (”ASP Report“) and the John L. Thornton China Center at Brookings (”BI Report“) should be read in tandem. They are solid pieces of work and provide the best framework for bilateral engagement on climate change. Implementation of their recommendations should begin immediately.
Neither report proposes specific outcomes for Copenhagen. Indeed, they both purport to deal only with US-China engagement on “clean energy.” Of course the reports note that joint efforts in the “clean energy” arena can “contribute to the success of multilateral climate change negotiations,” but they do not advocate specific outcomes for those negotiations 1. This seemingly narrow scope is designed partly as a rhetorical trick and partly as way to speed Chinese engagement on the issues; who opposes clean energy?
Nevertheless, both reports assume that in this bilateral relationship the US will “lead” by adopting a cap on carbon emissions as of a specified date with commitments to substantial reductions over time. The US cap and reduce plan will presumably mirror what it is willing to agree to in December at Copenhagen (or whenever things end up having to be agreed to). If the US leads, the BI Report in particular makes it clear that China must follow.
It is the BI Report’s description of what would constitutes an acceptable response by China that leads me to support this proposal. The balance of this post will address that issue. Subsequent posts will examine the reports’ specific proposals for initially engaging China and sustaining cooperative momentum.
China must respond to US cap and reduce actions by accepting binding commitments of its own. The BI report lists several measures that would constitute an acceptable initial Chinese response and warns of the consequences if China fails to act responsibly. 2
The BI report (pp. 53-54) suggests that China’s initial commitments could take the form of “binding:”
- “intensity targets” (limiting emissions per unit of GDP);
- renewable energy requirements;
- emissions limits in specific sectors; or
- “policies and measures” such as shutting down old inefficient plants or adopting and enforcing appropriate building efficiency standards
Each approach would include “metrics to gauge level of effort and results.” Of course, as the BI Report acknowledges, none of these measures “cap,” much less reduce China’s carbon emissions. At best they would slow the rate of growth of emissions below “business-as-usual levels.” The report suggests that these commitments be effective for a “minimum of five years.”
I assume there will be considerable debate concerning the length of this initial commitment period. Some in the US will push for a shorter time frame; the Chinese will no doubt push for a longer period. I can live with five years or so especially since this nicely coincides with Chinese planning cycles, and these initial limits could be incorporated into the 12th Five Year Plan (2011-2015) (I’m ignoring for now how these time frames mesh with pre-existing treaty and convention frameworks).
The BI Report does not mention them, but the imposition of carbon taxes during this initial period should also be explored. China has often noted that a large portion of its carbon emissions result from the fact that it has become the world’s factory. It implies that the world, therefore, must pay to reduce these emissions. Fair enough, place a carbon tax on the export of these products, especially those products produced in energy- intensive processes. The proceeds from this tax could be used to help reduce carbon emissions.
After these initial commitments expire, “[s]ubsequent commitments should be determined based upon the science of climate change, as it evolves in the years ahead, and changes in the economies of both countries.” While allowing some wiggle room, my assumption is that the BI Report contemplates that at this point China would join the developed countries and implement a meaningful, if slightly less stringent, “cap and reduce” program-an outcome which will have become much more palatable as a result of the mutual trust building actions and success of the joint efforts that form the main recommendations of the BI Report.
China, in its pre-Copenhagen posturing, has refused to accept any binding commitments. This position will, obviously have to change. 3 It has also reiterated a desire for technology transfers and financial aid. The BI Report (p. 69) also attempts to bring expectations on these points back to earth.
- “Technology transfers:”
most clean energy technology in the United States is owned by private businesses, which have little incentive to transfer it on concessional terms. U.S. businesses identify lack of intellectual property protection as a significant barrier to technology cooperation with China. While these issues must be addressed, there is also major opportunity to engage in co-development of clean energy technologies, as each side has considerable complementary capabilities in this sphere.
- “Financial aid:”
Chinese officials cite the need for additional financing to support the shift to a clean energy economy. Significant U.S. federal appropriations for this purpose in the years ahead are extremely unlikely, as any proposal to spend U.S. tax dollars in China would meet with stiff resistance on Capitol Hill. In practice, good projects tend to generate necessary funding, and that will be even truer as the economic crisis is resolved over time.
In response to those on the US side who would seek faster action by China to cap and reduce, the BI Report does a good job of explaining why such efforts are doomed to fail. I’ll address that issue tomorrow. For now, suffice it to say that as surely as we live in a world threatened by the march of climate change, we also live in a world where action in China is constrained by a Byzantine power structure. It can be encouraged to engage bilaterally and to mobilize the will and resources necessary to undertake effective action, but that engagement and mobilization require the alignment of a number of factors. The BI Report sets forth as good a proposal as we are likely to get in the time we have left to achieve the proper alignment. We should all work to make it happen.
- This fact explains the rather uncritical parroting of China’s conception of “common but differentiated responsibilities” which I noted upon my initial skim of the ASP Report ↩
- “Should the United States take this set of issues far more seriously, but prove unable to find ways to enhance cooperation and mutual trust with China on them, the level of suspicion regarding long-term motives and sincerity is likely to grow considerably.” BI Report, p. 16 ↩
- I suppose if UN officials directly involved in the climate change negotiations are permitted to express their opinions on how climate change negotiations should proceed, the Secretary General is certainly free to express his. As noted by the Guardian : “Ban Ki-moon told the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit that although “China and India have . . . taken steps,” it is “not enough, they have to do more.” He said that climate change was a “common and shared” responsibility and that the time for arguments about who caused and contributed to global warming was over. “We should not argue who is more responsible, who is less responsible, who should do more. . . . This is a common, shared responsibility.” ↩