China and the US: moving forward on climate (part two)

Lack of mutual trust is among the problems hampering cooperation on global-warming issues. But, writes Zhang Haibin, if the world’s two largest emitters of greenhouse gases do not overcome the obstacles between them, their relations as a whole may suffer.

The United States and China are, respectively, the world’s largest developed and developing countries. They also are the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases. It is no exaggeration to say that cooperation – or lack of it — between these two countries will determine the future of climate change.

It may appear that China has established a number of mechanisms for climate-change cooperation, with results already obtained in scientific research and energy and environmental policy. But in comparison with what is possible and what is necessary, progress to date has been limited. Numerous problems lie ahead.   

The primary issue is a lack of mutual trust. The cold war may be over, but ideological factors still are a major influence on US policy towards China. International cooperation on climate change means, effectively, development aid being transferred from developed to developing nations. But hostility toward communism excludes China from receiving official aid – including on climate change — from the US. Indeed, the US is the only developed nation not to have provided China with assistance in this field – in contrast to Japan and the European Union. Official development aid is a main channel for inter-governmental cooperation on climate change, and without it China-US efforts in this field are crippled.

The US is the world’s only superpower, while China is a rapidly rising new power. For reasons both historical and current, there is deep suspicion between the two nations and the foundation of strategic trust is weak. This leads the two countries to pay particular attention to the balance of costs and benefits of any cooperation. The most obvious example in the field of climate change is continuing US concern – arising from national security and economic considerations – about cooperation on the peaceful use of nuclear power.

Nuclear power is one of China’s most viable options for replacing fossil-fuel power and reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. Developing it is one of China’s main strategies for ensuring energy security and dealing with climate change. Currently 2% of China’s power comes from nuclear sources, compared to an average of 16% for developed nations. China’s energy plans will see that 2% increase to at least 4% by 2020. Although the Agreement Between the United States and the People’s Republic of China Concerning Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy  was signed in 1985, implementation was long delayed. Representatives of China and the US signed the Agreement of Intent on Cooperation Concerning Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Technologyin 1997, during a Washington summit between presidents Bill Clinton and Jiang Zemin. Finally, in 2003, the US corporation Westinghouse won a sales order from China for advanced pressurised light-water reactors, the first of which is planned to begin operation in 2013. Although obstacles to China-US nuclear cooperation have been removed, comparing the US decision to carry out condition-free cooperation with India on nuclear matters with the complex process of transferring nuclear technology from the US to China shows there is still some distance to go.   

There are many similar examples. After all, both sides have their own economic aims for energy and climate-change cooperation. The US, for example, has always made clear that besides influencing China’s energy and climate-change policy and reducing the environmental impact of Chinese energy and resource development, a major aim is maintaining the competitiveness of US industries and increasing their market share in China’s energy sector.

Meanwhile, China aims to use international cooperation – including China-US cooperation — on climate change to import affordable, usable technologies. Disagreements exist between China and the US on this transfer of energy and environmental technology. The US pushes strongly for entirely commercial transfers of technology, while China maintains that, as a developing country, it should enjoy preferential conditions.

There also are wide gaps in the understanding of obligations under international climate-change cooperation. In 1992, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development – the “Earth Summit” held in Rio de Janeiro — established the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” as the basis for international environmental cooperation. But during negotiations, China and the US have taken very different views of what this principle actually means.

In China’s view, climate change is largely due to the release of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide by developed nations since the Industrial Revolution, with effects that are now global. Therefore, the US and other developed nations should take the lead in combating climate change by reducing their emissions — and the US, being the world’s largest greenhouse-gas emitter today, should play an exemplary role. As developing countries have historically had low emissions, the average emissions per capita currently are low and the countries’ main task should be to achieve sustainable development. Requiring developing nations to reduce emissions in step with developed countries, then, is unfair.

The US, for its part, believes that by not including obligations for major developing nations such as China and India to reduce emissions in the Kyoto Protocol, efforts made by developing nations will be cancelled out – which is unfair to the US. It opposes this model of reduction in developed nations, calling instead for global emissions reductions. This thinking is reflected in the Byrd-Hagel Resolution, passed by the US Senate in July 1997. This non-binding resolution – expressing the “sense of the Senate” and co-sponsored by legislators of both political parties – was approved with 95 votes in favour and none against. The resolution expresses the Senate’s belief that the president should not sign any climate change deal “unless the protocol or other agreement also mandates new specific scheduled commitments to limit or reduce greenhouse gas emissions for Developing Country Parties within the same compliance period.” In 2001, the Bush administration announced a withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol, a move ascribed in large part by the lack of obligations placed on developing nations such as China and India.

In May 2007, Bush’s strategy changed. The new starting point was that post-Kyoto climate change mechanisms must include both developed and developing nations. This stance was reiterated at international economic and climate-change meetings held in the following months. Former US vice president Al Gore, who lost the 2000 presidential election to Bush and has been a harsh critic of his environmental policies – agrees that future international climate mechanisms must include both the US and China (or they will fail to gain political support within the US). In accepting the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize – shared with the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – Gore said in December 2007 that the US and China will need to make the boldest moves.

These, then, are the main issues hampering further China-US cooperation on climate change. Currently, the Chinese government’s stance is that “cooperation has started”. This is good to hear, but with climate change becoming an ever more pressing problem, a start is nowhere near enough. Overcoming these obstacles and changing the current situation — where there is more talk than action — will require a calm and steady approach from both sides. If this does not happen, it will not just hold back (or even reverse) China-US cooperation on climate change, it may negatively impact on China-US relations as a whole.

Dr. Haibin Zhang is an associate professor at Peking University’s School of International Studies. His major research areas are global environmental politics and international organisations.

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