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Copenhagen Countdown: US’ Climate Change Position

June 2nd, 2009 · 6 Comments

If the Chinese side has presented a confusing face to the public, the Americans have not been models of consistency either. 

Presumably, the US is offering a commitment at Copenhagen similar to the reduction goals set forth in the Waxman-Markey bill ( the “American Clean Energy Security Act,” hereinafter ACES).  These come no where close to Chinese demands for reductions by developed countries in the near term.  Using 1990 as the base year, China demands up to 40% reductions by 2020, ACES commits to 4% or so reductions, but actually reductions could be larger.  Having said that, let me be clear, ACES is indeed a “game changer” in terms of US-China climate change relations.  There is absolutely no question that it has greatly helped US efforts in its negotiations with China as other wise commentators have ably pointed out.  Before  the US had no leverage, now it does.  Could it have been better?  Of course, especially in terms of its 2020 reduction goals, but that doesn’t effect the fact that this piece of legislation has regained for the US a prominent seat at the negotiating table.  

There has been little public discussion as to what aid, if any, the US is willing to provide to developed countries to help them reduce their carbon emissions and adapt to climate change, of this issue.  Although Congressman Sensenbrenner, a member of the House delegation that visited China last week, may not get many things right on the climate debate, his statements on this issue, made at the end-of-trip press conference, are probably pretty accurate as concerns the political tolerance for such aid.

Also, last December, China tabled a proposal at the United Nations that called for each nation to put 1 percent of their GDP into the clean development fund. For the United States that’s $140 billion dollars a year. That money will be borrowed and we will be borrowing it from China as well as other donor nations. And to borrow this amount of money, to turn around and give it back makes no sense whatsoever and I think the Congress will reject it overwhelmingly if it is submitted.

Whatever money ends up being available in outright aid will probably be earmarked for the most disadvantaged countries and populations who are experiencing the most severe impacts of climate change.  China will not be among the designated recipients. 

This is a tough issue to address.  China views payments from developed countries as part of their moral responsibility for the high totals of their historic emissions.  1  Developed countries can either agree to take a share of the carbon reduction burden equal to their historic responsibility, or they can pay developing countries to reduce their emissions.  This is a sound argument.  The US (or at least the majority of US voters, I suspect) view the demands for climate aid by developing countries, particularly China, as a form of blackmail that can not be indulged. 

As to “technology transfer,” Sensenbrenner was also firing shots across the bow.  His primary issue on this trip seemed to be to protect US IPR holders from any deals that could end up giving away or discounting their intellectual property rights. 

Certain segments of the US business community are starting to mobilize on this issue as well.  The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and business leaders last week launched the Innovation, Development & Employment Alliance (IDEA).

IDEA’s immediate priority is to urge Congress and the Obama administration to maintain strong IP protection for innovators as the U.S. engages in international talks related to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Caroline Joiner, the Vice President of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Intellectual Property Center (GIPC), . . . expressed concern about the “anti-IP push” of the UNFCCC and called the talks “the IP battle of the year.”

There are avenues for joint research and the development of new technologies where China and the US would share the IP, but any large-scale “technology transfers” from US IP holders to China (or anyone else for that matter) is going to be a very tough sell.

What does the US want from China?  Here is where the US position becomes confusing.  Secretary of Energy Steven Chu was quoted as saying that action was more important than percentages and pledges.

“The success of Copenhagen will be determined by what countries really do. To define it as failure if developing countries do not sign up to certain criteria is not constructive at all,” he said.

True, of course, but perhaps it’s the lawyer in me that will feel pretty uncomfortable if all the major emitters haven’t signed up to “percentages and pledges.”  Voluntary programs to lower carbon emissions do not have a history of success (and for a variety of reasons which I will discuss in a subsequent post, are a very bad idea when it comes to China).

The House delegation headed by Speaker Pelosi and including Congressman Markey appeared to be interested in talking with China about a plan that would involve sectoral controls applicable to, for instance, the steel industry.  A chief concern was how to verify compliance by China with any agreed upon commitments. 

Senator Kerry was touring China on a separate trip and also talking climate change.  At dinner on Tuesday Kerry echoed the concern about verification.  He made it clear that China must make commitments (the nature of which he did not articulate) which are “measurable, reportable, and verifiable.” 

Kerry shared the podium with Zhang Guobao, Vice Chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission and Director of the National Energy Administration.  Director Zhang was quite charming in his initial remarks about Senator Kerry and because Kerry spoke without notes, he said he would ditch his prepared speech and talk from the cuff (45 minutes later many in the audience were looking wistfully at the discarded five pages of written remarks).  For the most part he talked about the efforts China was undertaking that had the effect of reducing the growth rate of its carbon emissions. 

He concluded by saying that he had read reports about how an American Senator was coming to China to put pressure on China to accept carbon limits (a clear reference to Kerry, although I am unaware of any such reports), but that there was no need for such limits because no one should doubt that China will do what it says it will do in the energy efficiency arena and renewable energy sphere.  Oh and by the way, if the US doesn’t push too hard, there are lots of opportunities for American businesses in helping China become more sustainable.

What is the US bottom line than?  For that, I think we should listen to Todd Stern, US Climate Envoy, who is coming to China this month.  He was quoted by Bloomberg as saying

“I don’t think that there’s any question that China and the other major economies have to be in the game,” Stern said today on a conference call with reporters. “They’re doing a lot already, but they’re going to need to do more actions and commit to them and be able to quantify them.”

That pretty much nails it.  I am very glad he is in charge of US negotiation efforts.

If you would like to hear Mr. Stern speak on “China and the Global Climate Challenge” at a June 3, 2009 (10:30am Eastern Daylight Time) Center for American Progress event you can view the live webstream, by following the instructions here.

  1. Only the US exceeds China in terms of total historic emissions.  In making the argument that other developed countries should also aid developing ones, China (and others) use an “historic emissions per capita” calculation.

Tags: US-China relations · Zhang Guobao · carbon emissions · climate change · energy efficiency

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 sustainablejohn // Jun 2, 2009 at 11:15 am

    EU and US will have measure, report, and verify (MRV) systems in place for their emissions and their emissions trading schemes. If China accepts any sectoral targets (or if it doesn’t and says its going to do more non-binding energy intensity cuts), how will they/we MRV their actions? China’s own data on energy intensity to date contradicts itself, and given the state of environmental regulation and MEP to date, they are going to need a lot more help/knowledge transfer/people/regulatory bodies to MRV their actions accurately. This is a major question.

  • 2 cmcelwee // Jun 2, 2009 at 11:28 am

    I think you have zeroed in on the critical issue John. The EU and US are going to want meaningful MRV systems in place for whatever China agrees to do, and China (knowing its vulnerability on these issues) will strenuously resist agreeing to any third-party verification or auditing of official figures.

  • 3 cmcelwee // Jun 3, 2009 at 8:23 am

    I inadvertently deleted a comment from Greg. Here it is:

    AAAAAAGGGGHH stop this carbon trading madness! It is useless, only traders will benefit, no nation is going to completely comply and we all know it. Individual nations should just slap a CO2e tax on all emissions.

  • 4 cmcelwee // Jun 3, 2009 at 8:26 am

    Greg, those of us in the service industries have to make a buck too. Cap & Trade will be of great benefit to lawyers. On the other hand, have you seen the Internal Revenue Code? Taxes can be pretty lucrative for lawyers as well. Let me declare myself professionally agnostic on the question of C&T v. Tax.

  • 5 Rob // Jun 3, 2009 at 1:56 pm

    Well, as a potential option, I might direct you to iCET’s website where you’d find out more about our Climate and Energy Registry project which we’re developing and looking to implement as a pilot in Guangdong (based on a “The Climate Registry” model).

  • 6 Greg // Jun 3, 2009 at 2:10 pm

    Well, a carbon tax idea as I understand it is a flat tax based on gross emissions.

    I have nothing against lawyers and them being paid for their services (well, maybe the rates…), I’ve received good service from my firm. But day traders, floor traders, etc have not done well for the US or world economy, placing immediate gain above long term investment strategies and carbon trading is another horrible scheme doomed to do nothing for reducing CO2e output and line alot of pockets.

    And anyone who touts C&T as “capitalism” is a bold faced liar as the whole scheme relies on all participants regulating domestic C&T markets. If one of the G5 or a few of the G20 decide C&T is not for them, the scheme goes in the trash.

    At least with a carbon tax, no nation is relying on the participation of 190 other nations and 190 other interests.

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