China Claims Edge over US in UN Climate Change Talks

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Obama-Jintao-climate-change-conference.jpgIn spite of the fact that President Obama is facing an uphill battle – in his own party – on domestic climate change legislation; and, with China taking every opportunity to hide behind their “developing” status, both the US and China used the UN General Assembly to ramp up rhetoric on climate change. To misquote the Bard, “methinks they doth protest too much.”

With every new splashy promise made, the December climate change conference in Copenhagen is threatening to become little more than a public relations event with little real concerted action. More climate talks are on the agenda for the G20 in Pittsburgh, but Obama and his team should avoid making the push for global leadership on climate change into a new breed of arms race because its a battle that the US cannot win.

Paying Lip Service is Costly – China, India and other developing countries want the US-led West to subsidize their carbon reduction efforts. If the West balks and no comprehensive global agreement emerges, the US could still find itself saddled with costly commitments made in going toe-to-toe with China in order to demonstrate leadership. For example, at the UN, President Jintao made the headline-grabbing promise to plant enough new trees in China to cover the area of Norway. Jintao also promised to get China to 15% renewable energy within 10 years, a much more ambitious timeline than any US plan. While it may not represent the kind of economy-crippling commitment that China fears will result from a global agreement, these programs will be costly, and Obama has his hands full just trying to pay for health care.

Democracy’s Dilemma – Not only is Obama hamstrung by health care, an increasingly troublesome war in Afghanistan, and an economy that is still teetering; but, he also has the mettlesome matters of bipartisanship, political pressure and budget restraints. While a strongly Democratic House could barely pass a weakened climate bill,  Jintao and the Chinese have a one-party system overseeing a command economy that gives the Chinese a lot more adaptability as circumstances dictate in Copenhagen, in the world press, and on the geopolitical landscape.

The World Won’t Grade on a Curve – The Chinese are already crying foul over efforts to stifle their economy for the sake of climate change action and the world community is not expecting much from the world’s fastest growing economy and most voluminous emitter. Commitments like those above are enough to make a splash and convince the world that China really is trying. By contrast, Senators from Obama’s own party are refusing to discuss the prospect of domestic climate change legislation unless it includes trade protections. That kind of opposition in his own party makes a lot of his words ring hollow while the Chinese will certainly be able to deliver on whatever proposals they float. There are no handicaps in this game, so even if they overshoot on a much lower standard, the Chinese promise to steal Obama’s thunder.

Conventional wisdom says you should never enter a land war in Asia. The same might be said for wars of words.

[photo credit: Flickr]

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  1. My, my. Aren’t we negative today. OK, so neither Republicans nor Democrats can get anything done….

    The U.S. could get to 15% renewable energy in 15 years regardless of politics. Note that carbon emissions have dropped 9% in the US over the past two years. 100 new coal plant proposals have been canceled since 2001 and coal use is down. Rather than upgrade them old coal plants are being replaced by natural gas, wood-fired power and wind farms. Solar installations are growing at a rate of 40% per year in the U.S. (Reference Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute)

    Continued high gasoline prices will continue driving the economy toward energy independence.

    Does anyone who knows anything about what is really going on really care if the Chinese are going to plant enough trees to cover an area the size of the tiny country of Norway? Though the Chinese could deliver on this promise, history says that they won’t. Even if they did, this forest wouldn’t come close to offsetting the emissions that will be generated by all the new coal plants they are building.

    Why not use your own and your computer’s energy next time to offer some constructive suggestions about how the U.S. might achieve global leadership in reducing carbon emissions and become part of the solution?

    • PJ: I salute your optimism and wish I could share it, but the fact of my post remains: the Chinese have no interest in trimming their sails, and we haven’t got a leg to stand on as global leaders when we cannot even get consensus on domestic carbon caps.

      Even if all the signs you point to are indicative of your point, BAU and market forces are clearly not going to be enough. Your US emissions numbers ignore the fact that while carbon may be down 9%, net generation was down over the same period, as was consumption, industrial production and nearly every other driver of emissions. There is a recession on. No one predicts continued stagnation in load growth. As all of those numbers climb back up, so too will emissions.

      We need policy reform to make any kind of large-scale renewable deployment feasible. Not only because it will still be necessary to subsidize projects and purchases in order to close the cost gap, but also because right now you couldn’t get a commercial renewable facility and its transmission connections built inside of a decade.

      Don’t get me wrong, I am hopeful, but I don’t want to see this opportunity lost to parties maknig the right noises and taking none of the necessary steps. You want negative? Check out what Alex Beam had to say in today’s Boston Globe: “Wouldn’t it be better to play it straight with the world, acknowledge that every industrialized nation, with the possible exception of Japan, is bent on spewing more carbon? That last week’s UN climate change summit was a bust, that Copenhagen will likewise fail, and that we had better learn to adapt to a world with a lot more carbon in the atmosphere?” ( Boston.com: Eco message for the masses )

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