US must push Asia on climate

Since its inception nearly 20 years ago, the dominant storyline of the United Nations climate change negotiations has remained essentially unchanged. Sadly, the recent Doha meeting was no exception.

We all know the tale. Wealthy but irresponsible America is the agreed-upon villain, able to save the world for a pittance but just too selfish to do so. The Europeans are the heroes, of sorts, less for their own significant emissions cuts than pointing an accusing finger at the U.S. and supporting the U.N. process. Developing countries are largely lumped together as victims, too impecunious to act themselves — except in the case of a few too large to ignore, like China and India — whose populations are still so poor that real reductions are out of the question.

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This climate gospel according to most activists and many in the media was never entirely true — now it is largely false. Yet it never seems to die.

Witness John Vidal of the U.K. Guardian on the Doha talks: “The blame for this miserable state of diplomatic affairs must be laid squarely on the US. ... For three years now, they have bullied the poor into accepting a new agreement. ... The resulting distrust has fatally plagued the talks.”

This is claptrap. Here are some of the new facts:

• The U.S. is well on its way to honoring its Copenhagen commitment of cutting domestic emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, according to a new Resources for the Future study, though additional regulation of the existing electric power sector will likely be needed. 

• The European Union is on track for even deeper emissions cuts, as evidenced by their support for an extension of the Kyoto pact at Doha, but that agreement covers only 12 percent of global emissions and attracted only Australia outside the EU.

• China’s emissions (29 percent of global total) will soon be twice as large as U.S. emissions (currently 16 percent) and are nearly triple those of the EU. More portentous is a new study finding that China and India plan to build more than 800 new coal plants, or 76 percent of the world’s total, locking in huge new emissions for decades. Unchecked, such developing country emissions would swamp reductions made by the West.

To his credit, President Obama successfully insisted ahead of the Copenhagen climate meeting in 2009 that China, India and all major emitting nations, who had never done so before, commit to at least slow their emission increases. This year at Doha, U.S. negotiators, historically in a defensive crouch, deserve credit for strongly defending the U.S. domestic climate record and arguing the centrality of major developing country reductions. Yet other opportunities for the U.S. to move China and India are not being addressed.

The Chinese and Indians are holding up the international phase out of hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HFCs) — a coolant chemical and super greenhouse gas. Eliminating HFCs would cut emissions by a massive 100 billion tons of CO2 equivalent — about the mitigation of 10 original Kyoto agreements — between now and 2050, a necessary step in preventing a climate tipping point. But engagement at the highest levels of U.S. government will be needed to move the Chinese and Indians.

In terms of U.N. negotiations, the Senate will not ratify any climate treaty that is of “legal force” coming out of the process (witness its failure to ratify the anodyne disability treaty last week). China and India, well aware of this, doubt the U.S. is negotiating in full good faith. While the U.S. may have to pay diplomatic lip service to the U.N. approach, the U.S. can gain stronger commitments under a less formalistic “pledge and review” process, the only system that has elicited commitments from all major emitters. This will likely require the U.S. to conduct serious bilateral negotiations, especially with China, but also India, Brazil, Indonesia and others.

It is true that large sections of Chinese and especially Indian society are desperately poor. America should continue to develop and deploy lower-cost and cleaner-energy technologies, including for export, through programs like the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), to address both emissions and poverty. And for the foreseeable future, the U.S. will have to agree to much deeper emissions reductions than developing countries.

But, equally, without real reductions soon from China and other developing countries, effective climate action will be impossible. That is the real storyline of climate.

Bledsoe, who recently returned from the Doha climate meetings, is president of Bledsoe & Associates, a Washington, D.C.-based independent consultancy. He was communications director of the White House Climate Change Task Force under former President Clinton and press secretary of the Senate Finance Committee under former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.).

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