Last week the US and China signed a Memorandum of Understanding agreeing to cooperate on climate change. Some have criticized the document as nothing more than an “agreement to agree” that failed to address the contentious issue of firm targets for carbon emissions reductions.
This criticism misses the point.
To begin, consider how far the US-China relationship has come in such a very short time.
In April 2001, just months after the Bush Administration took office, the US sent a military plane near Hainan Island in China. China responded by forcing down the plane and detaining the 24 American crew members for 10 days until the US apologized.
The message then was clear: Do not mess with us.
In stark contrast, China began its relationship with the Obama Administration by sending 150 senior Chinese officials to Washington to discuss the global economy and climate change. Before leaving Washington, they signed an agreement to cooperate on renewable energy, smart grid technologies, electric vehicles, carbon capture and sequestration, joint research and development, clean air and water, and protection of natural resources.
A very different but equally clear message: We want to work with you on climate change.
Consider also the importance of a US-China consensus on: (a) the existence of a climate change problem, and (b) the need to address it.
Many in the Bush Administration – including Vice President Cheney – did not believe that we had a problem or that we needed to do anything about it. The official position on climate change was that America should not sign any agreements until China and other developing nations agreed to firm targets to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
China responded by arguing that they should not consider firm targets until the US and other developed nations first agreed to firm targets to remediate their much longer history of carbon emissions.
As Wu Changhua of The Climate Group in Beijing has noted, very little progress was possible when the US and China each “used the other as an excuse for inaction.” The agreement last week is meaningful because it signals an intent by both sides to find ways to work together. That is the essential first step towards any progress.
Equally encouraging are the reasons why the US and China are beginning to work together:
1. A solid consensus in the US on the need for renewable energy. This consensus rests on beliefs that transcend partisan lines, including: (a) that US national security requires a shift away from dependence on foreign oil; (b) that we are leaving a legacy of significant environmental damage for generations in the not-so-distant future; and (c) that economic growth in the US depends on becoming a world leader in new, clean energy technologies.
2. A recognition in China that it must move quickly to prevent environmental disaster. In each of the past five years, China has built an average of 70 gigawatts of electric generating capacity – about the same amount as exists in all of France. Most of these plants have been dirty coal plants with obvious environmental impacts. Remember when China had to shut down factories before and during the Beijing Olympics to make sure the air quality would not kill the athletes? China knows that it cannot continue on this path.
Does this mean that the US and China will agree on firm targets for greenhouse gas emission reductions in Copenhagen later this year?
I hate to disappoint you. But I think the answer is "No."
The underlying message of the agreement signed in Washington last week is that the US and China are going to forge two paths to address climate change. Yes, they will still argue with one another over how much each country should reduce its carbon emissions and by when. But at the same time, they will pursue a second path of cooperation towards achievable solutions with or without an agreement on targets.
Those looking for simple solutions to climate change will be very disappointed by the absence of firm emission reduction targets in Copenhagen later this year. But what would you rather have? A Copenhagen Agreement on firm targets without any agreement on how to reach them? Or a Copenhagen Agreement on how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions without firm targets?
Whichever you prefer, get ready for the latter.