guardian.co.uk | Wednesday 14 October 2009
US aims for bilateral climate change deals with China and India
Fresh commitments may breathe life back into Copenhagen deal as India prepares to announce cap and trade scheme
Suzanne Goldenberg and Jonathan Watts
The Obama administration is hoping to win new commitments to fight global warming from China and India in back-to-back summits next month, the Guardian has learned, including the first Indian emissions trading scheme.
The US hopes the new commitments will breathe life into the moribund negotiations to seal a global treaty on climate change in Copenhagen in December, by setting out what action each country will take. But many observers say such bilateral deals also risk seriously weakening any Copenhagen agreement by allowing the idea of a global limit on greenhouse gas emissions to be abandoned.
The US’s twin diplomatic push will see Barack Obama meeting China’s president Hu Jintao in Beijing on November 16-17 before playing host to India’s prime minister Manmohan Singh at the White House on November 24. The visits appear timed to provide a much-needed boost to a proposed law to reduce US emissions now before the Senate, as well as to the Copenhagen talks.
At preparatory UN talks in Bangkok earlier this month, the US and other rich countries were accused by a group of 131 nations of trying to "fundamentally sabotage" the Kyoto protocol, which the group said must be the basis for its successor. Kyoto — which made no demands on developing countries and which the US refused to ratify — remains political kryptonite in Washington. The US wants to move away from a legally binding global agreement to one where individual countries pledge cuts in their national emissions.
The state department envoy, Todd Stern, believes strongly that separate bilateral agreements with countries such as China, India, Russia and Brazil are the building blocks to an agreement at Copenhagen. But adoption of national action plans is hazardous say others, as there would be little clear idea of whether together they would avoid dangerous global warming.
US officials are hopeful that breakthroughs with India and China could still provide the underpinnings for at least a limited deal at Copenhagen. "China and India are both critically important to achieving our international goals on carbon reduction. We need them as part the system," said Senator Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat who serves on the foreign and environment and public works committees. "There has already been a lot of work done between US and China, and there is going to be more work done next month with President Obama going to China."
Indian officials are looking to their prime minister’s visit to Washington to replicate an energy agreement signed between the US and China in July. India wants help in speeding its adoption of new, greener technologies and expanding its use of solar power.There is also interest in research co-operation, especially on carbon capture technologies, which hopes to trap greenhouse gases from power plants and bury them. "It would be like the memorandum of understanding with China," said Jairam Ramesh, India’s environment minister.
In response, on India is preparing to unveil new measures to reduce its surging growth of greenhouse gas emissions: its own version of a carbon cap-and-trade scheme, in which polluters can buy and sell emissions permits, and a new solar project.
"We are going to introduce a domestic cap-and-trade programme, but the cap will be on energy intensity, not carbon," said Ramesh. This would limit how much carbon can be emitted for each unit of energy produced, which will slow the rise of emissions rather than cutting them back, and allow the Indian economy to continue to grow and alleviate poverty.
He said the legislation to establish the scheme would be introduced before Singh’s visit to Washington, with a vote in the Indian parliament by the end of the year: "By December it will be done."
India is also pushing for a relaxation of international patents on green technology. "Unless you adjust the intellectual property rights, how do you bring about rapid defusion," said Shyam Saran, India’s climate change envoy.
US officials say they are looking to Obama’s visit to Beijing to produce concrete commitments from China on how it would reduce its large and rapidly rising emissions. President Hu announced at a UN summit last month that China would reduce energy intensity by "notable margins".
"Fairly intensive work is under way to thrash out specific content in the eight or nine different topic areas" spelled out in July’s memorandum, said David Doniger, a former US climate negotiator now at the Natural Resources Defence Council. Those areas are thought to include energy efficiency, "clean coal" technologies and electric cars. There has also been talk of extracting an agreement from China for efficiency in different sectors.
"If the US and China can come to some sort of view on this then I think it will unlock a lot of things," said Björn Stigson, president of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. "If that is not the case than i think we will not see a very comprehensive agreement in Copenhagen." The council represents 200 global companies with a combined value of $7 trillion, including household names such as Shell, Toyota, DuPont, adidas and PricewaterhouseCoopers.
However, the diplomatic effort is tempered by growing pessimism within China at the prospects for an international climate deal. "The Bangkok talks marked a new low. If we don’t see progress soon, then Copenhagen is going to be an exercise in managing expectations," observed a European diplomat.
Nonetheless, as well as unlocking the Copenhagen negotiations, new moves from India and China would help Obama at home, where his Democratic allies in the Senate face a tough struggle trying to pass a climate change bill to cut US emissions.
After a number of delays and mixed signals from the White House, Democratic leaders in the Senate will begin an intense push on October 27 to craft a final bill. But that leaves barely three full working weeks before Copenhagen to try to put that bill to a vote.
Environmentalists say movement from India and China could still help by quashing the argument from the right that other countries are not doing enough to cut greenhouse gas emissions. "It is pretty clear to everyone in the US that bilateral agreements with India and China that are new and additional will help secure climate legislation in the US," said John Coequyt, who heads the climate programme at the Sierra Club. "The big advantage of doing it in [bilateral] form is that it makes sense to members of Congress."
India’s move towards cap-and-trade is the latest in a series of shifts in Delhi’s position on climate change. The moves are in part intended to dispel the risk that India is cast as the spoiler in the negotiations. "We are not going to be a deal-breaker at Copenhagen," said Ramesh. India is also anxious to separate itself from China in the negotiations. China has now overtaken America as the world’s largest single polluter, producing 23% of global greenhouse gas emissions. India is producing an increasing share of the world’s emissions, but it presently is responsible for just 5%.
Battle on the hill
After the denialist Bush era, Obama promised a radically different approach to global warming – at home and abroad. But the White House and its Democratic allies in Congress still face a tough battle to pass a law to cut emissions. Such a law is critical to persuading the world that the US is serious about acting on climate change. The White House – which has been focused on trying to get a healthcare bill through Congress – persuaded Democrats to hold off on opening up debate in the Senate on climate change. The first draft – an 821-page work that calls for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 20% over 2005 levels by 2020 – has been on hold for two weeks. Now the date for a showdown has been fixed for 27 October. With Republicans predicting disastrous economic consequences from carbon taxes, and rustbelt Democrats fearing job losses in dirty industries, most commentators say there is only a slim chance of producing legislation before Copenhagen.
China – A make or break partnership
A deal between the US and China on climate change could make or break the negotiations at Copenhagen, business leaders say.
The last round of negotiations in Thailand exposed the bitter divide between the industrialised and developing worlds over responsibility for causing global warming and compensation for the poor countries, which will be hit the hardest.
"If the US and China can come to some sort of view on this, then I think it will unlock a lot of things," said Björn Stigson, president of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. "If that is not the case than I think we will not see a very comprehensive agreement in Copenhagen."
The council represents some 200 global companies with a combined value of $7tn, including household names such as Shell, Toyota, DuPont, and Adidas.
Other executives said the US and China could come to a larger accord through joint ventures in technology development – especially carbon capture and storage.
"I have come to believe that there needs to be a ladder of co-operation between US corporations and Chinese corporations, US cities and Chinese cities," said Jim Rogers, the CEO of Duke Energy."