India is pushing a global emissions monitoring system in Cancun talks that could become the centerpiece of a compromise with the United States if other developing countries sign on. Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh is said to expect a "quid pro quo" from the United States to make the deal work, new documents show.
In proposing a system that the United States and China might agree upon, Ramesh in no uncertain terms told U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern and Deputy National Security Adviser Michael Froman that money and technology assistance to developing countries must be part of any deal on formulating a transparent system. Moreover, he said, extending the 1997 Kyoto Protocol beyond its expiration date in 2012 is a key element to any agreement.
"Let me also say that without a firm commitment to have a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol and improved mitigation pledges from the USA, the [transparency] framework I am suggesting simply will not fly," Ramesh wrote.
The letter to Stern and Froman, obtained by ClimateWire, was part of a package Ramesh sent to Washington when climate negotiators representing the major global warming polluting countries met in mid-November. Ramesh was not able to attend, but his plan to help iron out differences between the United States and China on transparency had already been making the rounds.
Analysts in Cancun, Mexico, this week for an annual round of U.N. climate talks said Ramesh's proposal has achieved some momentum and could help move talks between the United States and China forward. As a member of the small group of emerging powers going by the acronym BASIC that helped craft the Copenhagen Accord, India holds increasingly important sway.
An effort to remove a sticking point
"I'm not sure if Ramesh's thing is what solves this, but the fact that he's trying to put forward a proposal that bridges the gap is positive. He's been in this game for a while, trying to figure out how to break down some of the barriers," said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists.
"I think it will be hard for the Chinese not to accept a proposal from a major partner in the BASIC grouping," added another longtime observer of the climate talks. Doing so, the expert said, would "isolate" China, something the country hopes to avoid.
How to establish a system for use by developing countries to monitor, report and verify their emission cuts has emerged as the most contentious issue in the talks and the main sticking point between America and China. China is resisting international oversight of steps it takes to reduce carbon emissions, and the United States has flatly refused to help mobilize hundreds of billions of dollars in climate finance to poor and vulnerable countries until it gets some commitments from China on transparency.
"Each side is reluctant to give things without getting them," said Michael Levi, an energy and environment fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
"For the United States, it feels like most of the game is 'give,' and transparency is one place they can get," he said. China, for its part, doesn't see what the United States -- with no climate bill in sight and a more conservative Congress that is unlikely to ratify any new treaty -- could give in return for a concession on transparency.
But beyond the horse-trading, there's also a substantive need for transparency, from the United States' point of view, particularly if a legally binding treaty is some years off, he said.
No 'punitive implications'
"The U.S. philosophy is that when you do deals that are not legally binding, transparency is the only thing you've got to connect commitments with public and political pressure. Transparency makes follow-through more likely," he said. But for China, where little information is made public within the country, much less to outside governments, "this is not easy territory."
Enter Ramesh, India's charismatic environment leader, who has pushed his own country to move forward on climate change and taken serious criticism for it.
Under his plan, a global monitoring system would be constructed "on the strict understanding that it is a facilitative process for transparency and accountability, and that it will not have any punitive implications of any sort." Countries would do their own reporting to the United Nations, and a panel of experts chosen by a variety of countries would review the submissions.
The proposed system would be applicable to all countries that emit more than 2 percent of global greenhouse gases, according to a Q&A Ramesh provided. But, he said, there will still be a distinction between developed and developing nations. Industrialized countries like the United States will report on the progress of their emission reduction commitments, while developing countries will report on their mitigation actions -- a slight distinction, but an important one.
But even in proposing the solution, Ramesh said he believes the United States is "making too much of a heavy weather" out of the transparency issue.
What can the U.S. give?
"To my mind, it is not as contentious or complicated as it is being made out to be, once we are agreed that it will not be intrusive, that it will respect national sovereignty and that it will not undermine the [U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change] and the Bali Action Plan."
Ailun Yang, head of climate and energy for Greenpeace China, said the question now is whether China will accept the ideas and what the United States is willing -- or able -- to give in return.
"We see already that China is taking steps to improve its data transparency, so this is not something that is technically impossible for China to do. It's more that China feels very strongly that if China will give this compromise, they can't figure out what they can get from the U.S. in return," she said.
The actual monitoring system proposal doesn't actually require much new from industrialized countries. But, Yang noted, the "quid pro quo" Ramesh asks for in his opening letter -- particularly, stiffer mitigation targets from the United States -- isn't likely to be met.
"The reading I have is that Ramesh wants to share with people his ideas, but he also wants to put conditions on it, and he wants to make those conditions pretty high. He must know that [the demands] are impossible," she said.
Added Levi, "This is a fast-moving discussion. If the Indian proposal is something that the United States feels comfortable with, at least as a step forward, and India can sustain it, that will put a lot of pressure on China to say yes. If China does say yes, that will put a lot of pressure on the United States [and] on a host of other things."
Want to read more stories like this?
E&E is the leading source for comprehensive, daily coverage of environmental and energy politics and policy.
Click here to start a free trial to E&E -- the best way to track policy and markets.