COPENHAGEN -- When China declared it would cut emissions relative to economic growth, energy analysts applauded. Congress yawned.
When China offered specific targets -- 40 to 45 percent reduction from 2005 levels -- climate experts were impressed. U.S. lawmakers raised a collective eyebrow. China can't be trusted to do what it promises, moderate Republicans and Democrats alike maintained.
Now, a former U.S. senator and Clinton-era climate change negotiator is calling for the Obama administration to step up its attention to China. Tim Wirth, president of the U.N. Foundation, along with a small group of experts on China's energy policy, says the White House needs a high-level point person to manage the Sino-U.S. relationship.
"I think [Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton and [Energy Secretary] Steven Chu have got to get together and develop the follow-up capability that does not exist now," Wirth said in an interview with E&E. Noting that State Department climate envoy Todd Stern necessarily has to juggle a number of countries and issues, Wirth said the administration needs a "strong senior person" who sits at the White House to "move the interagency process."
"It's important that you have someone who is senior and visible on Capitol Hill and Beijing day in and day out," he said. China is the world's largest greenhouse gas emitter, having recently taken this dubious title from the United States, which has, by far, the world's largest per capita emissions.
'Staffing up' for new China-U.S. joint ventures
Several sources this week said that David Sandalow, assistant secretary of energy for policy and international affairs at the Department of Energy, has been interviewing candidates for such an intermediary role. A DOE spokesman described the move as simply "staffing up" to help ensure that new joint ventures signed by the United States and China run smoothly.
"Cooperation with China on clean energy is a huge priority for Secretary Chu, and the Department will be staffing up that effort to make sure we have the right resources in place," the DOE spokesman said in a statement. "Secretary Chu believes this is an important opportunity to make progress on our shared climate goals and create jobs here in the United States."
China is working to reduce energy intensity 20 percent by 2020. Chinese leaders and independent experts say China is likely to meet the goal, eliminating 1.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. It's unclear how the new carbon intensity goal, announced a few months ago, will play out because so much depends on a great unknown -- China's economic growth.
Cross-country agreements are percolating. Last month, President Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao agreed to a far-reaching package of cooperative energy measures. They include collaborations on electric cars, shale gas and carbon capture and sequestration projects and a $150 million jointly funded clean energy research center.
Buried in the agreement was a largely overlooked but potentially significant agreement between U.S. EPA and China's National Development and Reform Commission to help China create an inventory for its greenhouse gases. Some China energy experts say that kind of ground-level work is necessary to boost Congress' confidence in China's progress.
Right now it's at a low point. Lawmakers who have long pressed for China to act on climate change were hardly cheered by the new Chinese targets. Many were openly skeptical that China could or would accurately report its emission claims.
"There's a lot of verification we're going to have to see before I'd embrace it and say it's as positive a development as the Chinese would hope we'd say it is," said Sen. Robert Casey (D-Pa.).
Added Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), "It doesn't matter what their numbers are if they don't have to prove them" (E&E Daily, Dec. 2).
Skepticism of China's data
Indeed, experts say there's good reason to be skeptical of China's data. In a recent op-ed, American Enterprise Institute scholar Lee Lane argued that until China's government data are open and transparent -- and press freedom is upheld -- the government's claims will lack credibility.
Citing the case of an American geologist who was arrested for stealing "state secrets" over the purchase of a commercial database on the oil industry, Lane wrote, "No other nation can trust China's word about its emissions while its society remains so closed that such databases are state secrets; and, without trust, international cooperation will be very limited."
Whether China will open its emissions books to international inspection is becoming one of the biggest fights in the international climate talks here this week.
So far, Chinese leaders have maintained a hard line, claiming that a 2007 decision that nations -- including the United States under the Bush administration -- signed in Bali, Indonesia, does not require developed countries to submit to international verification.
Moreover, negotiators maintain, they are voluntarily imposing sweeping new transparency rules that they insist the world should trust. At the same time, Congress likely won't pass legislation curbing emissions in the United States until it is convinced that China is acting aggressively, as well, to cut carbon -- and that it can trust the data.
Barbara Finamore, China program director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said she believes programs like the EPA inventory will help create actual confidence in China's numbers. She also praised the idea of a U.S.-China point person.
"China needs that. They need to have somebody they can deal with on these things to move programs forward," she said. "You really do need someone who knows China to focus on it."
Wirth and William Chandler, an expert on energy and Climate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank who also has been lobbying for a China point person, said a high-level appointee is critical to help coordinate work between various U.S. agencies. Meanwhile, Wirth, who served a combined 22 years in the House and Senate, said members of Congress also need to start hearing more often from the White House if the administration hopes to make the case that America's work with China is paying off.
"Who's been up there selling this?" Wirth said. "You can't expect them to get this material out of the ether. You don't go up to the Hill and try to sell a change in the tax code by saying 'Oh, you ought to change the tax code.' You go up there and sell it."
Said Wirth, "You don't get anything done without working it."