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Announcements of U.S.-China Cooperation Create a Path to Copenhagen Success

SOURCE: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

U.S. President Barack Obama tours the Great Wall in Badaling, China on Wednesday, November 18.

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The United States and China announced on Tuesday a package of cooperative agreements on clean energy and climate change that are remarkable in both breadth and ambition. The cluster of seven initiatives, partnerships, action plans, and research centers covers a range of low-carbon energy strategies from electric cars to energy efficiency technologies.

These agreements follow on the heels of last Sunday’s announcement at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting that the United States has embraced the Danish proposal for finalizing an interim international climate agreement in Copenhagen in December. The U.S.-China summit help further signal a positive shift in expectations for Copenhagen between the two countries responsible for 40 percent of the planet’s anthropogenic carbon emissions.

Perhaps the most important, and most overlooked, achievement at this week’s summit was the commitment to promote greater transparency on efforts to reduce emissions. This should increase confidence for the prospects of creating a robust international agreement on climate change.

Transparency, accountability, and verification

It is now clear that China is signaling its increasing willingness to meet the standards of transparency, accountability, and verification that will be necessary to create an acceptable global agreement on climate change. This will be critical to reassure skeptics of domestic climate pollution legislation in the United States that China will keep any promises it makes to reduce its carbon emissions.

China pledged last month to cooperate with the International Energy Agency to establish “principles for improving data transparency” and continue to “strengthen China’s energy statistical system.” The U.S.-China Joint Statement released at the end of the presidential summit builds on that previous initiative by committing both sides to “provide for full transparency with respect to the implementation of mitigation measures.” In addition both sides “resolve to take significant mitigation actions” and “resolve to stand by these actions.” This is bold language for China, and demonstrates its willingness to be held accountable for commitments on climate pollution reduction, including targets on energy efficiency, renewable energy, forest coverage, and now carbon intensity.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also signed a memorandum of cooperation in connection with the summit with China’s National Development and Reform Commission to help China develop a robust, transparent, and accurate inventory of its greenhouse gas emissions. President Obama had already announced a commitment to such an inventory for the United States at the U.N. leaders summit on climate change in September. And previously the International Capacity Building Branch of EPA’s Climate Change Division had provided a relatively small amount of money to help Chinese provinces take first steps toward creating a carbon inventory in 2008. This new joint program however allows for more ambitious levels of cooperation moving jointly toward a common regime, which should build greater international confidence that these two hold outs from previous similar initiatives will catch up with the rest of the world.

The significance of these developments cannot be overstated. It is a common worry in American policy circles that we should not trust China’s commitments on mandatory emissions reductions to be “measurable, reportable, and verifiable.” A standard for measuring emissions is an absolutely necessary condition for any effective reporting regime. And establishing this carbon inventory in China and the United States provides just such a standard.

Broad scope of clean energy technology cooperation

China and the United States once again formalized their joint belief that a “transition to a green and low-carbon economy is essential and that the clean-energy industry will provide vast opportunities for citizens of both countries in the years ahead.” The focus articulated here for cooperation on on-the-ground, bottom-up clean-energy projects—including those in electric vehicles, energy efficiency, renewable energy, and cleaner combustion of coal and shale gas—demonstrates the beginning of a positive, cooperative, and comprehensive relationship on clean energy. The newly established U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center will see real money to the tune of $150 million over the next five years committed equally by both sides. Public-private partnerships involving 22 U.S. companies in the newly formed Energy Cooperation Partnership will have the opportunity to co-develop technologies and markets with Chinese partners.

Such measures move beyond the now-tired narrative of developed versus developing country responsibilities on climate action, which has dominated the history of the Kyoto Protocol. The world cannot hope to hit the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s goal of cutting global emissions in half by 2050 if reductions only come from developed countries. In that respect, these new joint initiatives are evidence that the driver toward a low-carbon future will not be a political compromise, but a reconciliation of sustained and meaningful international collaboration in the deployment of clean-energy solutions with the realities of atmospheric physics and chemistry.

All of the world’s major emitters, both developed and developing, must make significant contributions to hitting IPCC’s “50 by 50” goal, and that can best be accomplished through cooperation and healthy competition in the race for the best alternatives to our carbon loaded energy economy. As we argued in our recent report with Asia Society, we can develop low- and zero-carbon technologies more quickly through cooperation. And in the short run, such cooperation can create millions of jobs and save consumers millions of dollars.

Noticeable shift in expectations for Copenhagen

Prospects had been diminishing until this past weekend that the next U.N. meeting on climate change in Copenhagen would result in a positive outcome. It is now clear that the U.S. Senate will not finish a climate bill before the meeting to pair with the American Clean Energy and Security Act passed last July by the House of Representatives. And it was widely expected that the Obama administration would not be willing to negotiate a new international climate treaty in December without such a bill.

But the surprise announcement this past Sunday at the APEC meeting in Singapore dramatically increased the prospects of a good outcome in Copenhagen. The United States announced at that meeting its intention to seek an interim agreement at Copenhagen and commit to turning that into a fully fleshed out legally binding agreement at a later date in 2010. This interim agreement will likely include everything from midterm emissions targets, to short-term financing for developing countries to transition to a low-carbon pathway, to substantive progress on provisions for technology transfer and taking on global deforestation.

It was clear this week in Beijing that China will stand with the United States in being “committed to working together and with other countries in the weeks ahead for a successful outcome at Copenhagen.” President Obama was unambiguous when he declared at the joint press conference in the Great Hall of the People that both countries’ goal at Copenhagen is not just “a partial accord or a political declaration, but rather an accord that covers all of the issues in the negotiations, and one that has immediate operational effect” even while a full and final agreement will take some months to complete. The agreement to stand by their mitigation actions, and the acknowledgment in their joint communiqué that developing countries should take “nationally appropriate mitigation actions,” reiterated that China is more willing than ever before to reflect its domestic actions in an international agreement.

Altogether these declarations suggest that Copenhagen is still very much alive contrary to media reports that an agreement has been dead for some time. Heading into the Denmark meeting in only a few weeks, the Beijing summit provides a sound basis of hope for a strong outcome.

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