Xi Jinping

China and US grow closer to agreement on climate change action

China and US are both eager not to be seen as the super-polluter who scuttled any chance of climate change agreement in 2015

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 November, 2013, 9:25pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 November, 2013, 3:08am

Differences between Beijing and Washington have plagued international discussions of global warming since the UN climate treaty was established in 1992, contributing to the foundering of the 2009 talks in Copenhagen and little consensus since.

But with China having recently surpassed the United States as the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the countries are finding that their interests increasingly overlap, climate experts and government officials say.

The more productive relationship is raising hopes that the friction of recent years may be easing and open the way for a global climate-change treaty in 2015.

International delegates have been meeting in Warsaw to negotiate the provisions of that treaty, with the conference scheduled to end overnight (Hong Kong time).

Zhang Haibin, a professor of international relations at Peking University who has served as an adviser to the Ministry of Commerce, said that while climate co-operation with the US remained difficult, there appeared at least to be a tacit agreement not to destroy the talks. That represents progress.

At the government level, "I think there is some convergence", Zhang said. "They can speak a common language about this."

The countries are driven by compelling domestic constraints as well as a desire not to be seen by other nations as super-polluting superpowers that scuttled an international deal.

China, choking from its hundreds of coal-fired power plants, has invested billions of dollars in alternative energy sources to power its growing cities. The US administration, facing court orders and pressure from environmental and public health groups, is writing rules to clean up existing coal-burning power plants and essentially bar the construction of new ones.

The co-operative spirit has been on display this year in an agreement by President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping to work together to phase down the use of hydrofluorocarbons, potent greenhouse gases widely used in propellants and refrigeration.

In April, US Secretary of State John Kerry announced the formation of a US-China climate-change working group.

"The United States and China are absolutely essential to this process," said Christiana Figueres, the executive secretary of the UN climate convention.

Also at issue are questions of who should pay for the climate-related damages and how much should be diverted from rich countries to poor ones to protect against the inevitable losses from rising seas and violent storms. These subjects were under discussion this week among the 195 members of the UN climate treaty meeting to map a path to a new accord.

It is the confluence of emissions reductions and financing for climate adaptation that has frustrated developed nations in their dealings with Beijing.

Despite China's being the world's second-largest economy and the largest greenhouse gas polluter, it is treated as though it were the relatively poor developing country it was when the treaty was created.

China has until now allied itself with the poorest African countries and most vulnerable island states in demanding separate rules and obligations than those for the US, Japan, Australia, Canada and European nations.

The US argues that those categories are outmoded in a world in which developing nations will soon surpass the developed world in emissions, and China will soon be the largest emitter in cumulative historical terms.

"They do a lot," Todd Stern, the US climate envoy, said this week, describing China's fight to beat pollution. "I'm not criticising China. The question is what they're prepared to agree to."