U.S.-China Copenhagen fight key to Capitol Hill climate change debate

A big fight at the Copenhagen climate summit is reverberating on Capitol Hill.

Negotiators for China, the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, are resisting calls to allow their pledged emissions curbs to be subject to international verification and monitoring.

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But U.S. officials at the talks emphasized to reporters on Tuesday that “transparency” must be a vital part of an international climate accord, and that talks between the U.S. and China are continuing. The U.S. is right behind China as the world’s No. 2 emitter.

The stakes are high.

Several Capitol Hill lawmakers say whether and to what degree nations allow international monitoring of their efforts will influence the Senate struggle to pass climate legislation next year.

“I don’t think you can do anything without it,” said centrist Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) when asked about the need to verify China’s emissions pledges.

Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), another swing vote in the Senate debate, said lawmakers will keep an eye on other nations when they take up a climate bill. “We will … be cognizant that our efforts are certainly limited without full cooperation globally,” she said.

Several other centrist lawmakers, such as Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), have said action by China is vital to securing their support for domestic emissions curbs.

China has pledged to curb its emissions intensity — that is, emissions per unit of GDP — by 40 to 45 percent by 2020, relative to 2005 levels.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a liberal who strongly backs mandatory U.S. emissions curbs, also said the China verification issue is important.

“There is a sense that we have been burned on the free trade agreements in terms of noncompliance,” Whitehouse said.

In addition to his own concerns, Whitehouse said that an absence of outside verification of China’s efforts would provide fuel for critics of climate legislation.

“It helps the opponents of the bill who argue it will lead to an exodus of jobs because of comparative advantage problems,” he said.

The House approved a sweeping climate and energy bill in June to curb U.S. emissions by 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020 and 83 percent by 2050, and the U.S. is provisionally offering these targets at the Copenhagen talks, subject to final congressional action.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) hopes to bring a climate and energy package to the floor this spring.

Senior Obama administration officials on Tuesday continued pressing the verification issue at the Copenhagen talks.

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They say China should live up to pledges made during a bilateral meeting between President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao last month in which both nations endorsed the view that emissions-reduction efforts should be transparent.

An American official said the U.S. wants an agreement at the talks that provides an “adequate sense of clarity about what other countries are doing and them having adequate clarity about what we are doing.”

“What we are looking for is for China and other developing countries to enter into a regime or system of transparency and verification, whichever word you want to choose, that would allow us to get a good sense of what their implementation is,” the official said on a conference call with reporters.

The official said there are ongoing “intensive” and “constructive” conversations, and that the U.S. is “hopeful” about an agreement, but hardly guaranteed it.

“I think they want to get a deal, but we will have to see how things go,” the official said.Chinese officials have said their emissions plan will be a firm and binding target domestically, but have criticized the idea of subjecting their actions to outside monitoring.

Obama’s bilateral meeting with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in November yielded a similar pledge of transparency. “This is about giving meaning and substance to those provisions they have already agreed to,” a second senior administration official said.

India subsequently pledged to reduce its emissions intensity by 20 to 25 percent by 2020.

The verification question is one of several roiling the talks, which are scheduled to culminate Friday with the participation of President Obama and scores of other world leaders.

Negotiators are seeking a broad international political accord on emissions cuts, finance from rich nations for adaptation to climate change in developing countries and other issues.

Efforts to craft a final, legally binding treaty are expected to follow next year.