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China and United States: Bridge Over Troubled Waters

New reports may emphasize disagreements between the U.S. and China, but the reality is much less dramatic.

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We have been in the swirling currents of the Copenhagen climate change negotiations for over a week, attending press conferences and listening in the corridors, but now the negotiators are running out of time. Before dawn today, the BBC World News led with the story that the sticking point in the negotiations is whether China will allow intrusive review of its progress on slowing the growth of greenhouse gas emissions. Of course, the media can’t resist a food fight, and all week the press has been filled with reports of verbal missiles supposedly being hurled by American and Chinese negotiators. We’ve also seen exaggerated portrayals of the supposedly-huge chasm separating the U.S. and China on questions like whether the U.S. will provide funds to China for clean technology and the extent of monitoring and review of China’s action.

The reality is less dramatic than the claims of opponents on either side. The facts may not make as good copy, but they may make a deal. For those in the U.S. worried about sending funds to China, Chinese officials have made clear their pollution reduction commitment does not depend on outside funding. Moreover, with the rise of China’s burgeoning demand for clean technology, the U.S. may find it in its own interest to provide support for U.S. companies expanding into these new markets. The verification of Chinese actions is feasible and can be done in a way that will not be at odds with China’s integrity yet at the same time can provide confidence to the U.S. and others regarding China’s follow through. As the President of the World Resources Institute, Jonathan Lash, recently pointed out, China and the U.S. participate together in many important international agreements that include review of actions. Also, though many policy makers may be unaware of this, the U.S. has officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on the ground in China advising the Chinese government on improving its air pollution programs. Moreover, the U.S. can invest in satellite monitoring as an ultimate failsafe.

The negotiators at Copenhagen have to answer their foreign critics but also peer through the fog of attitudes at home to ensure they have solid political support. At press conferences, Chinese officials have said their position on review of their country’s actions is based on the plan for Copenhagen written in Bali two years ago. China has been reducing its energy intensity and recently announced it would reduce carbon intensity (carbon emissions per unit of GDP) by 40 to 45 percent by 2020. At this week’s press briefings Chinese officials emphasized that this target will require ambitious action, and moreover that as a developing country with many millions remaining in poverty, China should not be held to the same standards as the developed nations of Western Europe or the United States. While some in China may be questioning whether they are getting enough in return, many do recognize the need to avert the worst impacts of climate change: flooding, drought, and widespread damage to China’s agriculture and coastal cities, impacts that could undermine China’s priority of economic development. In the U.S., those who have denied the seriousness of climate change are now in retreat, but concerns remains about whether U.S. businesses and manufacturers will lose a competitive edge if we cannot tell whether China is making good on its commitment to reduce carbon intensity. At the same time, a solid majority of Americans continues to seek action to reduce global warming pollution. In both countries momentum is building for action – but the U.S. and China must act together.

One suspects that senior officials on both sides are keenly aware of the need to find common ground. The search for bridging language is reflected in the increasing use by both China and the U.S. of the word “transparency” (see here, and here) rather than words carrying the baggage of past controversy. This is a classic case of where the right words to flesh out the transparency concept can help get the right result (see Dec. 16th article: “U.S., China may be near ‘transparency’ compromise”). Not because new wording would paper over still-intractable differences, but because by getting away from language tied with previous conflicts, we can recognize that conditions on the ground in China are favorable to building a much-needed review mechanism that is impartial and non-intrusive. No doubt many readers have fresh ideas about how to do this – something that would be welcomed by the parties. In the remaining days of the Copenhagen conference, there is an historic opportunity to build a bridge between the parties over troubled waters.

china, UNFCCC

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