Jason Lee/Reuters
Buildings are seen in a heavy haze in Beijing's central business district, Thursday.

Global warming talks spark friction between US and China

After the first week of global warming talks in Copenhagen, disagreements between nations are still evident, particularly between industrial heavyweights the US and China.

Nobody said crafting a new global warming treaty would be easy.

During the first four days of talks here aimed at building a truly global agreement to combat global warming, China has lashed out at the US, Europe, and Japan for offering what it sees as inadequate emissions targets.

The head of a bloc of developing countries, known as the G-77, has lashed out at – among others – the Danes, hosts of this gathering, for circulating a draft treaty that the G-77 finds flawed.

Meanwhile, US officials have pointed to China's anticipated growth over the next several decades and says that math, not politics, is driving Washington's insistence that China offer more than it has on greenhouse-gas control efforts – and that what they do must be verifiable from beyond the Great Wall.

Tiny Tuvalu, speaking for small-island nations, insists that any agreement this meeting achieves by Dec. 18 must be legally binding, and not a mere political agreement, since the survival of many island cultures hang in the balance.

Perhaps the most visible disagreement so far is the one between the US, the world's current economic superpower and China, its likely successor. The US has proposed cutting its emissions to around 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, with additional cuts to follow at regular intervals through 2050. China's top negotiator, Su Wei, dismissed the offer, saying "the figures can not be regarded as remarkable or notable."

In defending the Obama administration's numbers on Wednesday, the president's special envoy on climate, Todd Stern, acknowledged China's strides toward greener economic development and accepted that the country is in a different stage of development then the US.

But Bejing's offer to reduce its energy intensity by between 40 to 45 percent by 2020 doesn't square with what's needed, he explained.

"By 2020, [China's] emissions will be 60 percent larger that the United States; by 2030 they're going to be 80 percent larger than the United States," he said. "Emissions are emissions. You've just got to do the math. This isn't just a matter of politics, or morality, or anything else. It's just math. You cannot get the kind of reductions that we need globally if China's not a major player. That's the reality."

Warmest decade

Looming over this bazaar of complaints, points, and counterpoints over temperature goals and emissions targets is this week's alert from the World Meteorological Organization that the first decade of the 21st century is very likely to be the warmest on record, once the final numbers are in. Global warming, it seems, has not taken the decade off.

"There's a lot of energy and anxiety," says Alden Meyer at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Still, despite the public kerfuffles, "there is a constructive atmosphere." People are spending more time negotiating the issues than raising truckloads of procedural objections, he says.

Indeed, a charged atmosphere is typical at this stage of talks, several veterans of the process say. The effect is magnified by the prospect that leaders from 110 countries, including President Barack Obama, will arrive late next week and ask their negotiating teams: What have you got to show for two weeks' effort?

Others add that the charged atmosphere shows that the talks are finally catching up with 50 years' worth of changes in global geopolitics. Today's players represent a far more economically diverse world than simple notions of rich and poor countries would suggest.

Bigger than Kyoto

And unlike the 1997 Kyoto protocol, which involved only major industrial countries, any new agreement will embrace virtually every country on the planet.

"What we're seeing in the negotiating process now are these differences in economic status and differences in national self-interest," says Andrew Deutz, director for international government relations at the Nature Conservancy in Arlington, Va. This is particularly true among developing countries that were once treated like one bloc, he adds.

As if to underscore the point, the G77 actually embraces 132 countries, all at various stages of economic development.

Even though these differences already were apparent during the 1992 Rio conference that led to the Framework Convention on Climate Change, negotiators retained the simplistic categories, he says.

Not surprisingly, one of the main areas of contention remains centered on emission-control offers currently on the table, and what they imply for global average temperatures. It opens a window on the increasing diversity of perspectives.

The emissions reduction offers made by the US and China so far are aimed at holding global average temperatures to around 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. Other major developing economies appear to share that goal.

But Sudan's Lumumba Di-Aping, chief negotiator for the G77, told reporters that a 2-degree target has no scientific basis; it is merely one option the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) gave policymakers, along with the kinds of emission reductions needed to stand a 50-50 chance of hitting that target. Instead, African countries and small-island nations have been pushing to hold global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. He based his demand on IPCC modeling that showed a 2-degree Celsius global average would lead to an even hotter sub-Saharan Africa, with disastrous effects on water supplies and agriculture.

Science policy specialists say that while estimating the level of emissions needed to reach a particular temperature goal is guided by research, the choice of which temperature goal to pick is political. It's based on any given country's sense of the risks its citizens face if temperatures overshoot the goal, the cost of changing paths, and the country's capacity or willingness to handle that level of risk.

The economic self-interest of Kenya, Tanzania, and Nepal, for instance, is quite different from that of China and other major developing economies, Dr. Deutz says.

In the past, Deutz says, the G77 plus China negotiated among themselves behind closed doors and tended to emerge with positions based on fragile internal compromises.

That left the bloc "with little room to negotiate with everyone else because of those delicate compromises," he says.

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