14 july 2014

Comment: US-China climate cooperation, harder nuts to be cracked

Li Shuo, Greenpeace, July 14, 2014

China and the US talk climate, often. The issue has risen to the top of their bi-lateral agenda and the institutional relationship covers everything from efficiency to smart grids.

But it is only half-way there. If the process becomes part of their political fabric, and extends to cover the biggest issue - coal - it could finally unlock global talks. From Beijing climate expert Li Shuo explains:

The US-China Strategic & Economic Dialogue (S&ED) and the Climate Change Working Group (CCWG) met in Beijing last week.

After the initial preparatory works, this round of the CCWG has brought bilateral climate cooperation to a new level.

Yet at its best, the mission is only halfway done. If creating an institutional framework is the first half of the game, both countries scored. But to truly “lead by example” and back up the political efforts with meaningful environmental outcomes, there is more work to do. This is a mission that requires leaders in both Beijing and Washington to think bolder, longer, and more strategically.

Putting climate on the international agenda

More than one year into its life, the working group has evolved from a nascent platform without a clear mandate into a fully-fledged mechanism that captures some of the most relevant bilateral cooperation topics outlined in detail in its latest report.

All the five initiatives – vehicle emissions, smart grids, carbon capture, efficiency in buildings and industry, and carbon accounting – are making steps forward.

Forest and boiler efficiency have been identified as two new action initiatives and possible areas of future co-operation include new ideas such as cooperation on a specific mechanism to help vulnerable countries. Meanwhile, experts also meet up to exchange information on their preparation for post-2020 climate targets.

From an institutional point of view, despite the occasional hiccups, the two sides have managed to pull together a large amount of work over a short period of time. Stakeholders have been engaged from government and the private sector, the initiatives stretch across policy briefs all encompassed under the common umbrella of climate change.

By putting climate change at the forefront, the most important bilateral relationship in the world is now associated with an issue that is not typically on the table between great powers. In fact, it's fair to say, it puts climate change higher on the agenda than it manages domestically in either country.

From institutions to transformation

From an environmental point of view, however, the working group is yet to become a transformative vehicle – a platform that catalyzes new and additional efforts.

This is no doubt a demanding task for such a young arrangement, but one it has to fulfill - if the two countries are to succeed in their ambitions. After all, if there is only one couple that shares sufficient bandwidth of issues where a tradeoff can happen and “prescriptiveness” can be injected, it is the U.S and China.

But if they want to make real progress in tackling climate change the two sides should capitalise on their mutual leverages towards each other and convince the other with its commitment and capability to deliver rapid emission reduction over the long term.

This will help create further trust between the two countries. Given how heavily climate politics in Washington is rested on Beijing these days (and vice versa), this will have the potential to trigger systematic shifts on how the governments as well as the general political constituencies perceive domestic climate action.

Getting around "common but differentiated responsibility"

Indeed, if we are seeing something significant emerging due to this upgraded political engagement, it is the tacit change on how the two countries treat the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR).

It is true that negotiators are still referring this term from Article 3 of the climate convention the same way as they’ve been doing for the past two decades.

Seasoned observers will also be certain that they will hear from the interventions and read from the submissions the four letters as many times as before.

But putting rhetoric aside, real change is arguably taking shape. Both sides, in numerous occasions, have expressed their intentions to put their post-2020 climate targets (or “intended nationally determined contributions” in UN jargon) on the table early in 2015 – for the U.S by the first quarter, for China by the first half.

As two of a small group of countries who have made this clear, the two biggest emitters are in effect interpreting the “common” part and the “differentiated” part of the CBDR principle by their actions. If both can honor their commitments, this will speak much louder than the aggregated quarrels over CBDR over the past decades.

If this is the way to unlock the biggest puzzle of the climate negotiation, we have reasons to believe more could be achieved. As the latest reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) finds, serious global emission cuts haven’t really started. There is no time to be cheerful but to work harder. To tackle climate change both China and the U.S need to make deep cuts, and the most effective place to start would be coal.

Right after the S&ED, Chinese Minister Xie Zhenhua and his American counterpart Todd Stern traveled on the same flight to Paris for the Major Economy Forum, a plurilateral platform for climate diplomacy.

This is just a side note of how intensive discussions are happening these days and how frequently negotiators of the two countries share time together.

A decade ago, American scholar David Lampton used the Chinese phrase “same bed, different dreams” to capture the essence of Sino-American relationship. This time around, for the better of the climate, they’d better share the same flight and the same dream. That way when they fly to Paris at the end of 2015, they may land us in the safe temperature range instead of runway climate disaster.

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