China Daily carried a report on Wednesday, saying China and the US had achieved nothing substantial at the bilateral climate change talks. But that was not to be, for shortly before boarding the flight back home on Wednesday afternoon, US climate change negotiator Todd Stern told China Daily: "We don't expect China to take a national cap (on greenhouse gas emission) at this stage."
The report in Thursday's edition carried the reaction of US environmentalists, who insisted that Stern's stance was temporary because the Sino-US climate change talks had just begun.
It seems that many American environmentalists and think tanks are not happy with Stern's performance in Beijing. A US source even said: "This kind of language can lead to Stern's resignation". Many interested groups have pinned high hopes on Sino-US partnership to fight climate change. But they have expressed concern on the slow progress of their talks, too, especially after the world's two biggest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitters made climate change a "primary area" of cooperation after Barack Obama became the US president.
Irrespective of the agenda of bilateral talks or the 12-day UN meeting on climate change in Bonn that ended on Friday, accusations and arguments have dominated conferences and forums.
If talks do not yield positive results and no concrete agreement on cutting GHG emissions is reached before the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December, there is no reason for negotiators, including Stern, to continue on their posts. The reason for that is simple: if they cannot reach a deal they do not have the right to fly across the globe to attend meetings and increase their carbon footprint.
Why amid all this does a climate change partnership between China and the US matter? Why some US groups reacted so strongly when Stern said that China did not have to put a cap on its GHG emission for now?
Their logic is that once China puts a cap on GHG emission, the US can no longer use China as an excuse for its own inaction. It would force the US to enter into a global deal at Copenhagen to fight global warming, which will succeed the Kyoto Protocol after it expires in 2012.
The US groups criticized Stern for failing to fully grasp the meaning of China expressing willingness on the eve of his visit to put carbon intensity reduction into social and economic development programs. They say Stern is "too mild", though the general agreement in the Chinese media seems to be that he is "shrewd negotiator".
Only six months are left before the Copenhagen conference. But negotiators are still using vague language and weird proposals to serve their countries' interests. There has been one significant shift, however. The US that refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol under George W. Bush, saying putting a cap on GHG emission would slow down American economic growth, has under Obama realized that developing clean energy and green technologies can actually create economic opportunities.
But the US Congress wants China to first set a mandatory GHG emission target. John Kerry, prominent senator and former US presidential candidate, has been quoted as saying: "There's no way we are going to get an agreement in the US Senate unless they (meaning China) reduce their emissions."
This is weird logic. Finger pointing is going to lead us nowhere. Why can't we forget mandatory and voluntary GHG emission cut targets for the time being and deal with the basic aspects first? At the global level, failure to achieve targets doesn't invite legal action. We don't see any of the 37 countries in the Kyoto Protocol Annex 1 being punished for its failure to meet its 2008-12 emission cut goals. Punitive action is not likely to be suggested at the Copenhagen conference either.
If we cannot do take punitive action, can we at least change our negotiation language and go back to basics? Can we devise an incentive package to encourage work on finding substitutes for fossil fuel? Can WTO play a leading role in discussions on how technologies should be traded freely? And can we stop politicizing climate change, and focus on life-and-death questions, because fighting climate change is a matter of life and death?