US EPA Administrator Attempts to Defuse the Superpowers’ Climate Standoff

The climate talks in Tianjin last week did very little to improve the prospects for a binding international treaty, which would limit the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that are warming the globe. In the wake of the disappointing meeting, Lisa Jackson,  the administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), made her first official visit to China. During the trip, which began Saturday as Tianjin talks came to a close and ended yesterday, Jackson and her Chinese counterpart, Environmental Protection Minister Zhou Shengxian, renewed a bilateral environmental “memorandum of understanding” that had expired in 2008. Will this pact help defuse the superpowers’ climate standoff?

Tensions in Tianjin

The frustrating UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meeting again made clear the gulf of understanding between the US and China. Like painful repeat of the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit, the Tianjin talks stalled when China refused to consider America’s call for all pledges made by developing countries to be independently monitored and verified. Claiming this would violate the Kyoto Protocol’s principle of differentiated responsibilities for rich and poor countries, Chinese negotiator Huang Huikang said, “I want to emphasise on our side no compromise on the two track process and no compromise on the interests of developing countries.”

The Times of India offered further insight into why developing giants like China are so opposed to independent monitoring: “The US stance of demanding equal level of scrutiny of mitigation actions of emerging economies is considered a backdoor route of converting the voluntary actions of countries like China, India, Brazil and South Africa into international commitments.”

US climate change envoy Todd Stern, who was not even at Tianjin, further entrenched Chinese resistance to the American proposal. In a speech at the University of Michigan Law School, he alleged that China was acting as if the Copenhagen Accord “never happened.” Su Wei, a senior Chinese climate change delegate at the talks, responded in a press conference by comparing the US to a vain pig. “[The US] has no measures or actions to show for itself, and instead it criticizes China, which is actively taking measures and actions,” Su huffed. “The developed countries are trying every means possible to avoid discussion of the essential issue—that is, emission reductions.”

Other nations watched helplessly as the political posturing of the world’s two largest climate polluters prevented movement on the other policies the negotiators had hoped to address in Tianjin. Dessima Williams, Grenada’s UN ambassador and the chair of the Alliance of Small Island States, suggested to Bloomberg that the US and China “have negotiations inside the negotiations.” She described their squabbling as a “brinkmanship game… if you don’t jump, I won’t jump.”

Limits of bilateral diplomacy

So is this week’s US-China environmental pact a hop in the right direction? Although it addresses climate change, Jackson and Zhou studiously avoided the contentious issue of increasing verified emissions cuts. The 15-page memorandum pledges in the driest of legalese to collaborate on the prevention of air pollution like GHGs and on the development, implementation, and enforcement of international law such as the hotly negotiated international climate agreement that the UN hopes will take effect in 2012, when the first Kyoto commitment period ends.

The EPA’s Jackson tried to put a optimistic spin on the agreement: “China and the United States share a number of environmental challenges, from improving the air our citizens are breathing at the local level to fighting climate change that affects our entire planet, and we must take on these challenges while continuing to expand opportunity at home and abroad,” she said in an intentionally vague statement. “This was an important step in our collaboration to protect our environment and increase prosperity for generations to come.”

Mother Nature Network blogger Andrew Shenkel hesitantly agrees with Jackson: “This pact could be a tiny small step towards combating this game of apathetic brinksmanship.” He thinks the symbolism of environmental cooperation with China could prove valuable in the effort to convince American legislators to enact or sign onto climate protection regimes. Perhaps. But what is more urgently required of Jackson, the Obama administration, and US negotiators is a credible domestic emissions reduction plan that they can bring to the negotiating table at the big UNFCCC summit in Cancun at the end of November.

With the failure of the US climate bill, the government’s capacity to reduce GHG emissions is greatly limited. An analysis from the World Resources Institute released shortly after the bill died in the Senate shows that, if the administration and state governments were to aggressively use every GHG pollution prevention tool they have available to them, the US would come close to–but still fall short of–the small 5% emission cut from 1990 levels that it promised in Copenhagen. US negotiators need to be able to deliver at least that much in at the Cancun climate summit.

Bilateral environmental diplomacy isn’t a bad thing, it’s just inadequate for dealing with the worldwide threat posed by climate change. It’d be better that Jackson spent her time getting the US climate and energy policy in order instead of trying to coordinate and influence Chinese policymakers. China’s government, which recently invested $11.7 billion in Chinese solar firms and controls 43% of the global market for solar panels, is already light years ahead.

Photo credit: chesbayprogram (via Flickr)