Climate Clash in Cancún
To find out more about the MRV process, I talked with Lo Sze Ping, who has worked on China's climate policies with Greenpeace and on greenhouse gas accounting with the Beijing-based Society of Entrepreneurs and Ecology. Lo attended the Cancún conference as a member of Green China: Race to the Future, a consortium of Chinese and international NGOs, including Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council, which are raising awareness about the importance of climate change. In Cancún, they published a position paper calling on the Chinese and other governments to take stronger action to fight climate change. "China is playing hard on the MRV issues technically not because they are against it but because this is the issue where the United States is poking China," Lo explained. "From China's point of view, there are two issues.
The first is the issue of not making MRV references to finance and technology. The US demands aren't backed with money. It is entirely unclear where the financial resources will come from to support the reductions that the developed world is asking of developing countries. The developed countries are pressuring developing countries to become more transparent, but the issue of funding from developed countries is far from transparent." Indeed, developed countries have not been clear about where the $30 billion in fast-track funds will come from or how they will be allocated. Although promised in Copenhagen for the period of 2010–12, less than half of the money has materialized.
"The second issue," Lo continued, "is that developing countries are not happy with the insufficient ambitions from developed countries regarding their own reduction plans for the medium term [up to 2020]. What is on the table from developed countries does not add up to what is required by science." This point leads China to believe that the United States is not willing to accept its share of climate responsibility. "Developed countries didn't show sincerity in their response, and now they are asking the developing countries, like China, to do more than what is required by the Kyoto Protocol," said Lo.
And this is where MRV comes in. The United States understands that process as a rigorous mechanism for reductions that should be applied in the same way to all countries, developed and developing. In the US view, MRV should have universal application, in which international inspectors with official access to the domestic activities of a country can verify reports of reduced emissions. Chinese negotiators view the US interpretation of MRV as a way of reversing the "common but differentiated responsibilities" clause in the Kyoto Protocol. "China believes we should not be renegotiating the mechanisms of the Kyoto Protocol; instead, we should stick to the Kyoto Protocol and negotiate just the second commitment period targets for each country," Lo explained. "MRV could be used as the Trojan horse to dismantle the Kyoto Protocol." For China, the MRV process functions as a domestic tool to quantify and verify emissions and reductions—an accounting instrument that China has already adopted. To Beijing, MRV and "differentiated responsibilities" are not mutually exclusive.
After sixteen climate change meetings, beginning with the first conference in Berlin in 1995, the United States and China are still unable to get beyond the dilemma of how to quantify emissions and determine who is responsible for reducing them. To progress, the United States would have to show China it has adopted a national plan for emissions reductions, such as cap and trade. As long as America forgoes domestic climate legislation, China is likely to doubt the sincerity of US action. Now, with recent GOP victories in Congress—86 percent of the incoming Republicans oppose government action on climate change—and noise from Tea Partiers (only 8 percent of whom believe global warming is caused by human activity), the United States appears to be retreating from climate legislation.
While US green ambitions are shrinking, China is reorienting its economy toward sustainability and renewable energy in a way that is nothing short of revolutionary. It has invested billions in renewable energy, energy efficiency, public transportation (the Chinese bullet train made headlines by reaching a record 300 mph during the Cancún talks) and developing standards for products, buildings, vehicles and fuels. In July Xie announced that a cap-and-trade system would be included in China's twelfth five-year plan (2011–15). In September China's most powerful agency, the National Development and Reform Commission, announced that China was setting up low-carbon pilot sites in five provinces and eight cities. One focus is to implement methods to measure, report and verify emissions. These events are an indication that China's lead over the United States in green technology will likely increase in the coming years.
Green technology is still a boutique industry in the United States, while China is producing it on a massive scale. Through aggressive government investment and central planning, Beijing has become a leader in solar panel technology, wind turbines and electric vehicle manufacturing. In fact, it is emerging as the only country in the world capable of driving down the price of green technology so that it can become affordable in poor countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
However, China's government-led policies have met with hostility in the United States. Earlier this year the United Steelworkers filed a 5,800-page complaint with US trade representatives, stating that China's subsidies of green technology were illegal and unfair. From the Chinese perspective, this is a no-win paradigm: if China doesn't invest in a cleaner economy, US lawmakers threaten to slap a high-carbon tariff on Chinese imports. But if China takes the environmental issue seriously and invests in renewable energy, US lawmakers threaten to punish China for "unfair" trade practices. Without prospects for a US-led agreement for emissions reductions at the UN, China has become a scapegoat in the US media and among US politicians. China-bashing is at an all-time high. In the recent midterm elections, an astonishing twenty-nine candidates used anti-China messages in campaign ads.
Dr. Dale Jiajun Wen is a Chinese citizen who watched the US-China negotiations from San Francisco, where she is China Scholar at the International Forum on Globalization. "The US failed to pass crucial climate legislation. Meanwhile, it has been seeking to divert attention away from its own failures by pointing fingers at China," she says. "The Chinese people are asking the US to stop using China as an excuse for its own inaction.
"China is very serious about its targets," she continues. "In recent months, in the final push to achieve its domestic energy efficiency target for the eleventh five-year plan, not only were some factories shut down but also some residential areas experienced blackouts. Have any Annex 1 [developed] countries had blackouts in order to comply with Kyoto targets? Yet in most discussions about transparency in Western media, China is presumed guilty. In Bali [the thirteenth climate change conference, in 2007], the United States was told, 'If you are not willing to lead, then get out of the way.' To give it fair credit, the Bush government did get out of the way and allowed the world to move forward with the Bali Action Plan. Now it is again time to ask the United States to get out of the way if it cannot lead."