When elephants fight

At COP15, carbon is power: the more you have, the more you matter, which is why all eyes are on China and the United States as the talking gets down to the wire.  The world’s two biggest emitters have been trading harsh words for ten days and, as some 114 heads of state or government pile into Copenhagen, the US China tone is getting no better.  

Senator John Kerry’s speech here this morning covered all the sore points: yes, the US had failed so far, he admitted, but it was back in the game and things would be different.  He pointed to President Obama’s green agenda and seemed confident that Congress would come good, if only under the threat that the EPA would regulate if the politicians didn’t legislate. 

But, he said, all that  was contingent on what happened in Copenhagen and it was more than an inconvenient truth that by 2020 China’s emissions would be 40 per cent larger than those of the US. All major emitters, he said, had to take on binding targets and every country that was part of the problem now or in the future had to be transparent and accountable. 

Shared responsibility, Senator Kerry argued, entails an obligation to each country to share information about its good faith commitments. Trust and transparency were key and verification was neither new nor threatening, being more than exists in nuclear or in trade agreements. Without an agreement that addresses this core of transparency, Senator Kerry stressed, it will be difficult to proceed. And for good measure, in less than diplomatic language, he said nobody who failed to sign up could expect to “dump high carbon goods” in the US markets. In other words, China,  comply or face tariffs on your goods.

This is language that China is likely to resent. The Chinese side has flatly turned down international verification and shows no sign of shifting. Some Chinese commentators believe that the notorious unreliability of Chinese statistics lie behind the refusal; others say they believe a verification regime will open the door for its arch rival the US to interfere with Chinese energy policy and other  fundamentals of the Chinese economy.    China has further said that it will not accept international verification for anything that is not being paid for with international finance, and that it does not want short term finance in any event.

The fact is there is little trust and less good faith in this issue and to the Chinese side, ever suspicious that the US is determined to prevent China’s rise, it looks like a Trojan horse.  China and the US have much to gain from cooperation, but if they do not get over this impasse, they put the global deal in jeopardy.