Of pigs and mirrors

Guest post by Angel Hsu, doctoral student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

The UNFCCC intersessional talks in Tianjin concluded with somewhat disheartening headlines of little progress, a widening divide between developed and developing countries and credibility slowly seeping from the multilateral process. One theme that dominated media in the waning days of the negotiations, however, centred on friction between the United States and China, whose differences led to the Chinese lead negotiator calling the US a “pig preening itself in a mirror”.

While the comparison of the US to a preening pig is not very diplomatic, the Chinese idiom from which Su’s remarks derive are actually much stronger.  The Chinese saying, Zhubajie zhao jinzi, li wai bu shi ren (猪八戒照镜子,里外不是人), goes beyond connotations of the narcissism conveyed in the Reuters’ piece.  Li wai bu shi ren, meaning “not the same person inside and outside”, expresses Su’s obvious frustration with what he feels is hypocrisy on the part of the United States in the latest round of climate talks.

During a press conference, Su criticised the US for failing to meet its UNFCCC commitments.  He said it was unfair for the US to criticise China on hot-button issues such as the measurement, verification and reporting (MRV) of mitigation actions, making China the scapegoat when the US itself “isn’t doing anything”.

Admittedly Su’s accusations are not wholly without cause, given the United States’ failure to secure domestic legislation that would ensure commitments on finance and mitigation in the UNFCCC process. But his remarks were nonetheless vitriolic and unconstructive, given the tenuous state of US-China relations, which I wrote earlier in the week would undoubtedly play into the backdrop of discussions in Tianjin.

In particular, debate between the United States and China ping-ponged back and forth on the MRV issue, leaving many to wonder exactly who is MRV-ing what and where.  In Copenhagen, China agreed to international verification of actions receiving financing, technology transfer, or capacity building; while also consenting to “international consultation and analysis” (ICA) for its national communications, which include details of its emissions. Vice minister of China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), Xie Zhenhua said rather casually early in the week that China was trying to increase transparency and did not have any major problems with MRV –  as long as national sovereignty was respected.   

Then Sun Cuihua, the deputy general-director of the Climate Change Coordination Office in the NDRC announced at a side event that China was currently working on a centralised database of greenhouse-gas emissions, which would include emissions data from Chinese municipalities and provinces and would eventually become open for the public. Although no specific timeline was given for completion, this is a major announcement, particularly considering the most recent publicly-available data for province-level greenhouse-gas emissions dates back to 1994. 

Despite these measures, the US still pushed China on MRV – but why? What perhaps bothers the US most is the fear that, if China indeed backs away from the Copenhagen Accord in the negotiations, its promises of MRV and ICA go with it. This fear was expressed by lead US negotiator and deputy special envoy for climate change Jonathan Pershing in a closed briefing to environmental NGOs last Tuesday. 

Coming away from Tianjin, the sense is certainly that time is not on our side – the patience many Parties, particularly the European Union, have displayed thus far in the multilateral negotiations is starting to wane. There is an urgent feeling that Cancún is the last shot to come up with enough concrete decisions to maintain the credibility of the process moving forward. However, without the two largest greenhouse-gas emitters – the United States and China – on board and talking, not bickering, little hope remains.