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Subtle but Important Shifts in Global Warming Positions Just Announced by US & China

Jake Schmidt

Posted November 17, 2009

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China and the U.S. just announced a Joint Statement (available here) and a package of agreed actions on clean energy.  This meeting between these two countries that account for around 40% of the world's CO2 emissions from fossil fuels couldn't come at a more critical time in efforts to secure a strong international agreement to address global warming pollution (as I discussed here).

We didn't expect big announcements on the critical issues of specific emissions reduction commitments from the two countries (hopefully that will be outlined in the coming months), but the US and China did agreed to some very positive shifts on a couple of fronts.  These were subtle, but important changes in the Chinese position that has occurred over the last year.  Having President Obama talking about global warming with China on such frequency and at such a high-level has definitely helped with this shift.

Here are the headlines from the climate portions of the Joint Statement that struck me.  (The NRDC China Program team will also provide some perspectives on the agreed package of actions on clean energy, available here).

  1.   Nature of the Copenhagen outcome. 

There was a little buzz over the weekend, when 19 countries reportedly agreed that they would seek a framework in Copenhagen that agrees to "one agreement, two steps" (as I discussed here).  Here is what the Joint US-China Statement had to say on that front:

"...both sides believe that, while striving for final legal agreement, an agreed outcome at Copenhagen should...include emission reduction targets of developed countries and nationally appropriate mitigation actions of developing countries.  The outcome should also substantially scale up financial assistance to developing countries, promote technology development, dissemination and transfer, pay particular attention to the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable to adapt to climate change, promote steps to preserve and enhance forests, and provide for full transparency with respect to the implementation of mitigation measures and provision of financial, technology and capacity building support" [emphasis added].

So while the US and China both recognized the challenge of finalizing the legal agreement in Copenhagen (as was recognized this weekend and that I discussed here), they did stress that the agreement could be more than just a mere piece of paper that has no meaning.  Rather, if such an agreement were reached in Copenhagen with the elements that they stressed, it could lead to real commitments to actions that reduce emissions while the full legal agreement is finalized.  So as I said before: stay tuned as I expect we'll have an interesting two-week ride in Copenhagen.

  2.  Both countries will take mitigation commitments and "stand  behind them". 

Here is what they had to say on this important front:  "The United States and China...resolve to take significant mitigation actions and recognize the important role that their countries play in promoting a sustainable outcome that will strengthen the world's ability to combat climate change" [emphasis added] .

While Chinese President Hu Jintao announced in September that China would take further actions to address their global warming pollution, including outlining an effort to reduce the overall global warming pollution intensity of their economy (as I discussed here and my colleague discussed here), this announcement codifies that this commitment will be forthcoming.  And given that they also agreed that the Copenhagen Agreement should include "mitigation actions of developing countries", it now appears clear that the Chinese will commit to those actions in an international agreement.  It wasn't clear before whether China would just have those as domestic commitments or whether they would also translate them into international commitments (as I discussed here) so this is a positive change. 

And they also announced that:

"The two sides resolve to stand behind these commitments" [emphasis  added].

This is a shift from the previous Chinese position in that they weren't willing to "open up their books and defend them" in the same way that the US would (as I discussed here). 

So that means that China and the US agreed that they would both have to commit to these emissions reduction actions internationally and they would be held accountable for them.  Both of these signal a subtle, but important shift that will help make China more accountable to meet their commitments.

  3.  Both countries actions to reduce emissions will be fully transparent. 

Both sides agreed that the international agreement should:  "...provide for full transparency with respect to the implementation of mitigation measures and provision of financial, technology and capacity building support" [emphasis added].

This didn't go as far as we ultimately need on the transparency of actions, but the Chinese did move from their previous position.  The Chinese have been saying before that they wouldn't subject all their actions to international scrutiny.  And now they are at least saying that those actions would need to be done with "full transparency".  And as a part of this agreement they signed a Memorandum of Cooperation between the Environmental Protection Agency of the United States and the National Development and Reform Commission of China and to Build Capacity to Address Climate Change.  As my colleague has discussed (see here) there are steps that would need to be taken to "build confidence on US-China climate actions".  Hopefully this shift and cooperation agreement will provide further flesh to the important "transparency" issue of Chinese and US actions.


In addition to these overarching shifts, the two sides did also agree to a set of joint actions that will hopefully produce tangible reductions in global warming pollution and deployment of clean energy.

So while the US and China didn't agree to the big ticket items -- the specific emissions reductions objectives -- which we ultimately need them to commit to, there were some important shifts in the Chinese position.

Hopefully we'll see even more shifts in the coming couple of weeks (and months).  The shifts from these two key countries have a very big impact on the overall stability of the international efforts to address global warming.

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Jem CooperNov 18 2009 06:02 AM

Stopping global warming is much simpler than people imagine.

Energy saving, nuclear, renewables, electric cars etc. are merely ways of filling the energy gap that cutting carbon dioxide emissions will create and mankind has been very effectively filling energy gaps for centuries without the aid of agreed national or global strategies, taxes or caps. Carbon capture is different. It is a way of stopping pollution. You can legislate to stop pollution (which is economically inefficient) or you can use market forces by giving credits in a cap and trade system, credits against a carbon tax or by paying directly as in my proposal.

We should oblige fossil fuel producers and importers to contract for the capture and sequestration of a quantity of carbon dioxide equal to a proportion of that produced from the fuel they supply. The proportion could start at a few percent and gradually build up. This would increase fuel price encouraging energy saving, nuclear, renewables, electric cars etc. and provide immediate funding for carbon capture and storage.

The contract might permit capture to be delayed for a year if the quantity captured were increased by 10%, and for another year for another 10% etc. This would not only help with plant problems, but would also allow contracts to be placed today, providing a huge incentive to get plants up and running as soon as possible.

We must soon stop carbon emissions from power generation, cement manufacture etc. and substitute electricity for fuel use in many domestic, industrial and transport applications. Taxing carbon, capping emissions or contracting for carbon capture when fuel is produced could all provide the economic incentive but unless applied globally will not be sufficient.

Carbon capture is guaranteed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to whatever annual target is set and is easy to apply globally because:
 It will appeal to rapidly growing and mature countries alike. There are no national caps to restrict relative growth.
 It will allow all industries in all countries to compete on a level playing field. There are no tax or carbon credit differentials and no allowances for governments to give out or auction.
 Because there is only one number to agree, the global annual target, extensive international negotiations will be unnecessary. There will be no national targets to haggle over and perhaps never meet and no issue about who gets the revenue from a carbon tax, consumer or producer nation, or what the tax rate should be.
 Enforcement is straightforward and does not rely on the co-operation of every country. The contracts would be traded and recorded centrally, mostly placed and paid for by the international energy companies. If countries were uncooperative and used their own fuel internally without contracting for carbon capture, a central monitoring organisation could impose an increased capture proportion on imports or exports of fuel for that country to compensate.

So what will it cost? The simple answer is that carbon capture and storage could cost up to 50 euros per tonne of carbon dioxide emission avoided. This translates to $32/barrel of oil.

The complicated answer is that it is only practical to capture carbon dioxide from large point sources like power stations. Forcing 75% capture on the global market through my proposal would drive fuel price up and electricity price down until we switched from fuel to electricity for sufficient industrial, domestic and transport applications.

The simple cost is modest compared to recent price changes so why are we waiting? Perhaps within as little as twenty years we could be defining the proportion of carbon to be captured, based on fossil fuel production at the time, such that global emissions were contained at the level that the oceans absorb annually, i.e. about 2.2 billion tonnes of carbon per year (25% of current emissions). Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration would then stop rising.

miggsNov 18 2009 09:14 AM

Jem -- Although you're right that carbon capture is a way of stopping pollution (or at least vastly reducing it) wouldn't it make more economic sense to build efficient plants that don't emit the carbon in the first place? That's precisely what you get with combined heat & power (CHP). A typical power plant is about 34% efficient, throwing away two-thirds of its energy in the form of waste heat. That's what requires it to use so much in the way of fossil fuels. But CHP plants are usually about 80% efficient these days, with some topping 90%. As a result, they emit far less carbon, use far less fossil fuels, and are economically a better deal than what we've currently got.

Denmark makes over half of its power from CHP. Couldn't the U.S. do much more than it is?

Now I'm associated with Recycled Energy Development (, so I'm not neutral on this, but the facts speak for themselves.

Jem CooperNov 18 2009 10:19 AM

Miggs--You don't need an international strategy to make combined heat and power happen; the free market will do that wherever there is an outlet for the waste low grade heat. Like all other energy saving/efficiency measures my proposal would substantially enhance the economics of CHP by increasing the price of fuel.

I have picked on carbon capture because, unlike all the other things that need to be done, it will not happen without an added incentive. It will always cost more to build and run a power station with it than without it. All the world needs to do is agree to that added incentive and everything else will follow.

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