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“Secret” US-China climate talks? I think not.

May 19th, 2009 · 3 Comments

Now it can be told!  This is one for the history books!  Not since Kissinger’s secret trip to China in July 1971 have we had US-China intrigue of this magnitude!  Here’s the scoop:

A high-powered group of senior Republicans and Democrats led two missions to China in the final months of the Bush administration for secret backchannel negotiations aimed at securing a deal on joint US-Chinese action on climate change, the Guardian has learned.

It was the Chinese side that reportedly started this cloak and dagger affair (not stealth climate progressives in the Bush administration). 

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 [CCS] and other technologies with the US.

The article does not explain why such discussions would have had to be held in secret.  After all, the topic to be addressed was very similar to the topics addressed at the very public US-China Strategic Economic Dialogue (SED) process.  Moreover, China had already expressed its interest in working with the US on CCS by having state-owned Huaneng Group sign up for participation in the US Department of Energy’s FutureGen project.

As it was, neither side apparently attached much urgency to the discussions because they didn’t actually meet fact-to-face until July 2008.  Then, hidden away in a secret bunker, well actually, a “luxury hotel” near the Great Wall, the parties began negotiations in earnest.  As a result of this clandestine rendezvous and the frank discussions that ensued, the parties concluded that China needed a public relations makeover.  I’m not kidding. 

Taiya Smith, an adviser on China to Bush’s treasury secretary, Hank Paulson, who was at the first of the two sessions, said: “The thing that came out of it that was priceless was the recognition on both sides that what China was doing to [reduce] the effects of climate change were not very well known,” she said. “After these discussions was a real public campaign by the Chinese government to try to make people aware of what they were doing. We started to see the Chinese take a different tone which was that ‘we are active and engaged in trying to solve the problem’.”

I don’t know about you, but at this point, I’m not feeling too confident about the negotiating skills of the US side.  It gets better.

After a second meeting (its location has yet to be revealed), “Xie suggested a memorandum of understanding between the two countries on joint action on climate change,” and one was promptly drawn up by the US side.  It contained three points.  Memorize these, they are bound to take a place equivalent to the Mayflower Compact in the climate change history books:

  • 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.

You are excused if you flipped the paper over or looked for a second page, but I’m afraid that is all there is. 

The first point is incomprehensible, but it is not clear if that is the fault of the negotiators or the reporter.  A 20% cut in carbon emissions?  Twenty percent below what? 1990 levels, 2008 when the deal was proposed, 2005 when the 11th Five-Year Plan started.  I suspect it’s 2005, and I also suspect it was not carbon emissions that China agreed to reduce, but energy intensity.  In other words, it simply agreed to meet its Five Year plan goal of a 20% increase in energy efficiency over 2005 levels by 2010.  This does not translate into a 20% reduction in carbon emissions.

The second point must have taken significant arm twisting, and the third one is the classic agreement to agree.  Not surprisingly, Xie Zhenhua is reported to have orally agreed (after dying and going to heaven) to these terms.

Things get a little fuzzy after this.

By the time Xie visited the US in March, the state department’s new climate change envoy, Todd Stern, and his deputy, Jonathan Pershing, were also involved in the dialogue. But the trip by Xie did not produce the hoped-for agreement. Both Stern and Holdren declined to comment when asked by the Guardian.

No kidding.  What US negotiator in their right mind would have signed that agreement? 

It seems very disingenuous to me to contend that the negotiations initiated by the Obama administration under the auspices of Secretary Clinton and Climate Envoy Stern were simply a continuation of “secret” discussions reported in this article. 

None of the quotes from the participants clearly state that the “secret” discussions were initiated directly by the Bush administration, but that is certainly the impression the reporter was left with:

The dialogue also challenges the conventional wisdom that George Bush’s decision to pull America out of the Kyoto climate change treaty had led to paralysis in the administration on global warming, and that China was unwilling to contemplate emissions cuts at a time of rapid economic growth.

That is revisionist history at best.  To suggest that the Obama administration climate negotiators are simply building on a foundation laid by the Bush team is preposterous.  Just what did the Bushies have to negotiate with?  Was the Bush EPA contemplating listing carbon as an air pollutant?  Was it planning on introducing a cap & trade bill in its final days?  Whatever deal may be struck between the US and China will be due to the leadership and hard work of the current administration, and it alone.

Here’s what I think happened.  These “secret” negotiations bear a striking resemblance to the so-called “U.S.-China track two climate dialogue” initiated by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and “Beijing’s independent NGO the Global Environmental Institute.”  Here’s what Jessica Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, had to say about this dialogue two months ago:

planning began [for the dialogue] in mid-2007 and the bilateral sessions began in Beijing in July, 2008. The goal of the dialogue was to see whether we could establish a framework for U.S.-China cooperation that would move beyond the accepted lists of areas of “what” we might do together to grapple with the concrete “how’s” of agreed areas in which we might actually proceed. The dialogue reached agreement on two priorities: First, the need to build human capacity to accelerate the market deployment of existing energy efficiency technologies, and secondly, the need for joint development on key new technologies, specifically carbon capture and storage and automobile fuel economy.

The dates and outcomes match up pretty well with the “secret” discussions.  Moreover, the principal sources for the Guardian article happen to be employed by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.  Coincidence?  I think not. 

The designations of these discussions as “secret” and their attribution to the Bush administration may have been the work of the reporter, not the individuals interviewed for the article.  I’m sure the Carnegie Endowment’s efforts were well-intentioned, and something may come of them yet in terms of agreements between the US and China to work on mutually beneficial projects designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Let us hope for the sake of the planet, however, that the Obama team is currently engaged in real  behind the scenes negotiations with China and that those negotiations produce something significantly more substantive than the spectacularly bland three point agreement purportedly negotiated in the phantom Bush administration talks.

[Update: The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace webiste has this post dated March 18, 2009:

U.S.-China Track II Climate Dialogue

Mathews opened the discussion by revealing for the first time that Carnegie and GEI together facilitated a year of off-the-record talks between Chinese and American energy experts and political leaders. Bill Chandler, director of Carnegie’s Energy and Climate program, and Jin Jiaman, executive director of GEI China, launched the talks in 2007 with the goal of moving beyond discussing what the two countries could do to address climate change and beginning to discuss how to do it. According to Chandler, helping to facilitate the political agreement to begin the dialogue seemed to be the best service the non-government sector could provide.

The resulting U.S.-China Climate Track II Dialogue afforded leaders from each country the opportunity to speak frankly and discuss the types of collaboration likely to produce results. Both teams agreed global emissions must be cut by 60 percent by the year 2050, and that both China and the United States must take action.

Mathews explained that the dialogue reached broad agreement on two main priorities for future cooperation: 


  1. Building human capacity to accelerate market deployment of existing energy efficiency technologies.
  2. Joint development of key energy technologies, specifically carbon capture and storage and automobile fuel economy.
Some websites may get more traffic than others of course, but I think it was unkind of the Guardian reporter to suggest that she broke the story of the secret meetings.]
[Update 2: Hey wait a minute!  If the discussions were "off-the-record," what are some of the US participants doing blabbing about them now?  If I'm Vice Minister Xie, I'm pretty pissed off right now!]

Tags: 11th Five year Plan · US-China relations · carbon emissions · climate change

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 sustainablejohn // May 21, 2009 at 10:55 am

    This whole farce is funny and sad at the same time. Either way, I’m loving the coverage Charles!

    So is China going to help America make more efficient cars??

  • 2 cmcelwee // May 21, 2009 at 2:20 pm

    Thanks John. The story has more than a hint of former insider turned outsider yearning for the spotlight again. You nailed it: sad & funny!

    As for the US learning anything on the car front, do you hold out any hope for teaching the old Amrican dogs (who are in the process of being shot to put them out of their misery) new tricks?

  • 3 Greg // May 22, 2009 at 1:33 am

    The Chinese make high quality, high efficiency cars? Since when?

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