Climate change

China, US agree to work together on warming, four years after Copenhagen stand-off

Four years after stand-off in Copenhagen, US and China agree to joint action, worrying some who fear they will block global emissions cuts

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 18 April, 2013, 7:24am

When the world's top two carbon polluters finally sat down on Sunday and signed an agreement on taking joint action on the growing dangers arising from man-made climate change, bitter memories of the 2009 Copenhagen summit still lingered in the minds of some Chinese witnesses of the stand-off between China and the US.

At the United Nations climate talks in Denmark's capital four years ago, China and the United States traded barbs, blaming each other for blocking progress as they disagreed on the fundamental question of how to share the burden of slashing greenhouse gases that cause global warming.

"I bet whoever helped draft the statement was not in Copenhagen," said a former climate negotiator after Foreign Minister Wang Yi and US Secretary of State John Kerry agreed that both sides would dedicate themselves to working together to tackle warming.

In fact, the thinly disguised bilateral hostility extended beyond the negotiating room in Copenhagen, where US President Barack Obama reportedly broke into a meeting between former premier Wen Jiabao and leaders of several emerging economies, and brokered a deal. Another stand-off occurred at a session of the UN talks in Tianjin in 2010, when top US climate envoy Todd Stern blamed China for shirking responsibility, while the host's chief negotiator, Su Wei, hit back, likening Stern to a pig character in a Chinese myth for making unfounded countercharges.

Although the rift between China and the United States remains unresolved, the renewed partnership marks a change of strategy by the two biggest energy consumers in international climate politics, as they may both soon face growing pressure to slash emissions of greenhouse gases.

China is now exempted from any mandatory carbon cuts as a developing nation, and insists it should not submit to such binding reduction targets, as it still needs to grow its economy.

The US did not ratify the existing Kyoto Protocol, which binds most industrialised nations to carbon targets.

Both countries agreed to negotiate towards a new binding deal, scheduled by 2015, which will apply to all countries after 2020.

However, the decision by China and the US to bury the hatchet worries some veteran watchers of the international climate talks. They fear that both countries - which together account for more than 40 per cent of global CO {-2} emissions - may seek a tacit agreement that could jeopardise any meaningful reduction in emissions targets.

According to Global Carbon Project, an annual report card issued by scientists and research institutes around the world, China produced 28 per cent of all the carbon pollution on earth in 2011, while the US produced 16 per cent.

"The renewed partnership, as far as I'm concerned, is positive for Sino-US relations, but may not be good news for the global climate scheme," said Kevin Tu, a senior associate at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he leads the China energy and climate programme.

Professor Zhang Haibin, of Peking University's School of International Studies, said China and America shared some similarities, as both faced difficulties domestically in taking on more aggressive emission reduction targets.

"Also, both China and the US are likely to prefer self-imposed reduction targets based on each country's capacity, in contrast to the top-down approach championed by the European Union, where each country is assigned a binding goal," said Zhang.

Li Yan, an East Asia climate campaigner at Greenpeace, said efforts to co-ordinate the policy positions of China and the United States actually started before the Copenhagen talks in 2009, but the two sides, who were then under strong political pressure, were unable to establish mutual trust.

"A trend is quite clear that the two sides have enhanced communication and agreed to avoid direct confrontation at the negotiating table, which is a rather pragmatic attitude," said Li.

Zhang also agreed that such communication could help both sides understand "where each other's bottom line lies", so as to avoid crossing them.

Still, Zhang and Li sounded a positive note, saying that chances were slim that the two biggest carbon polluters would "race to the bottom" in an effort to escape tighter emission controls.

"China has already recognised that external pressures on carbon will help its environmental transformation domestically, which is much needed for the country," said Li.

Zhang added that the joint statement heightened the world's expectation of an agreement, as it has brought renewed vigour to what had been an impasse on the issue of international climate change.