You wouldn't know it by the intense focus on health-care reform and on race over the past two weeks, but during about that same period Washington and Beijing made strides to bridge their divide over reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Just last week, China and the United States signed a memorandum of understanding that commits them "to respond vigorously to the challenges of energy security, climate change and environmental protection through ambitious domestic action and international cooperation." That might sound like feel-good diplo-speak, especially when there's a dearth of details in the rest of the memorandum. But when you consider where relations had been before, the events of the past two weeks have been promising.
The increased activity is happening in the looming shadow of the upcoming December talks in Copenhagen on a successor to the 1999 Kyoto Protocol. Both the United States and China have made assurances that they are not crafting an agreement separate from the final global climate accord. But because together the two nations account for 42 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, their discussions will play an enormous role in the success or failure of Copenhagen.
This is a far cry from what happened under President George W. Bush. After spending most of his eight years questioning the science buttressing predictions of catastrophic climate change, Mr. Bush created the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate (MEF). Nevertheless, there wasn't much progress - so much so that the Chinese government took to leaking its frustration to its compliant press.
That's not the case today. The Obama administration treats China not as a supplicant but as a strategic partner. Under Mr. Bush, the MEF was viewed as a policy stepchild. Under Mr. Obama, it has cabinet clout as secretaries Hillary Rodham Clinton (State), Gary Locke (Commerce) and Steven Chu (Energy) have all jumped in to bring China along as a key ally in the process. Recently, Chu and Locke, both Chinese Americans, left Beijing with a pact to establish a joint clean-energy research facility to create and test carbon capture and sequestration and other clean technologies that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Significant disagreements remain. The Chinese want the United States and other developed nations to commit to firm midterm emissions-reduction targets. They also want those countries to provide substantial contributions to a fund that would help developing nations address rising sea levels and other consequences of global warming. The United States wants developing nations such as China and India to commit to mandatory actions as part of a global agreement. They were exempt from the Kyoto accord.
While the clock to Copenhagen is ticking, there will be a number of opportunities to resolve these issues. In September, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will host a day of climate talks on the eve of the U.N. General Assembly. Mr. Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao will head to Pittsburgh for the G-20 summit a few days later. And then the two leaders will meet in Beijing in November. The hope is that these meetings will fill in many of the blanks with definitive, concrete actions and decisions. There's still a long way to go, but at least China and the United States are finally working together.
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