Lowering expectations for near-term U.S.-China joint climate effort

Climate change will be high on the agenda when President Obama meets Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing next week for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting and bilateral talks.

But the once-intense buzz of a major joint announcement has largely died down. Just one month before a critical U.N. negotiating session aimed at developing the outlines for a new agreement by 2015, analysts said the willingness of the two largest greenhouse gas emitters to lead the world in climate action remains unclear.

"It's a very serious agenda item at this bilateral summit in Beijing, but at this point, I don't think anyone knows how far this will get and what might be announced," said Kenneth Lieberthal, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and director of its John L. Thornton China Center.

"I will be pleasantly surprised if there is a specific set of outcomes that is announced from the summit on climate change. I will be very unpleasantly surprised if the ball has not been moved down the court in a good direction," he said.

By all accounts, climate change is on the shortlist of priority items for both countries. But it is competing against contentious issues like cyber spying, the South China Sea disputes and a big push from China for an Asia-Pacific Free Trade Agreement. And despite intensified cooperation on energy between the United States and China over the past few years, the countries remain still starkly divided over how they envision a new international climate change deal.


The agreement to be signed in Paris next year calls on all countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions after 2020 and to unveil those targets early next year. The Obama administration says it agreed to the deal only under the condition that it hold all countries equally legally responsible. China, though, has insisted that the new agreement should look like the current Kyoto Protocol, which calls for only wealthy countries to cut emissions while demanding money for poorer countries to take voluntary action.

Two faces of China?

And yet behind the scenes, observers say, China is actually moving seriously toward a unilateral target that could include a peak emissions year, a cap on coal consumption or both.

"I always think of the Chinese on climate change as two different groups. Domestically, they're one of the most forward-leaning in the world," said Taiya Smith, a managing partner at Garnet Strategies LLC and a senior adviser at the Paulson Institute. Of the team that negotiates at the United Nations, she said, "Their ability to agree to things is very much limited by what has already been set for domestic policy."

That same tension will likely prevent a major new agreement on post-2020 targets or specifics about agreed elements of the new climate deal, she said. Even if China were ready to announce a peak year, Beijing likely wouldn't do so until the Obama administration unveiled its post-2020 target -- something it has no intention of doing until next year.

"I don't think you're going to look at any kind of big, comprehensive agreement. There's nothing that's going to make your heart flutter," Smith said of next week's talks. But, she said, "I do think you are going to see substantial, incremental movement on all of the projects they're working on."

Ailun Yang, a senior associate on the World Resources Institute's major emerging economies team, said she also thinks an agreement on targets next week is unlikely. But, she said, there could be announcements on financial cooperation and other elements that could help propel a new global deal.

"It will set the stage for Paris for sure. This will be crucial for the Paris meeting," she said. And, she argued, even if no major announcements emerge, energy and climate cooperation is developing as a rare area of technological agreement between the United States and China even as other issues rankle.

Need for a greater sense of trust

Over the past several years, Washington and Beijing have worked together on climate change through the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, a partnership that many observers say Secretary of State John Kerry has strengthened. Earlier this year, top officials from both countries agreed to discuss their respective plans for new emissions targets even though they were at odds over the details of the 2015 agreement. A series of joint clean-energy initiatives also have been announced on everything from boosting natural gas to helping to measure greenhouse gas emissions.

"Step by step, we are shifting our focus from the difficulty of compromise to the inescapable reality of a clean energy future," Kerry said after that July meeting.

Paul Bledsoe, a fellow with the German Marshall Fund and a former Clinton White House climate aide, said he believes the United States and China increasingly recognize that they need one another to move forward.

"That's a very different attitude than the blame game of five years ago," Bledsoe said. For the United States, he said, moving into a presidential cycle, "It is now a policy and political imperative for the administration to gain significant climate pledges and actual reductions from China." Beijing, meanwhile, is intent on improving air quality, which could spur action there to at least reduce emissions from coal in the near to medium term.

"It's an economic rival, so [joint action] is a delicate dance, without question. But to the extent that we recognize that our emissions reductions are only effective if in the long term matched by theirs, it's a necessity," Bledsoe said.

Smith argued that despite the work that has been done, a wide gulf of mistrust remains that could imperil any big climate agreement between the United States and China.

"I don't know if it's best to do that until there's a greater sense of trust and a willingness to hold hands and jump off the cliff," she said. "We really have to have that confidence built up."

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