By Junjie Zhang, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Junjie Zhang is a senior advisor at Asia Society and assistant professor of Environmental Economics in the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at the University of California, San Diego. The views expressed are the writer’s own.
The announcement at this month’s G20 summit that the U.S. and China plan to form a contact group to tackle the rapidly rising use of a key ozone-depleting chemical came on the heels of a June summit in which Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping agreed to work together to reduce the consumption and production of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).
That agreement was itself followed by a report submitted by the U.S.-China Climate Change Working Group in July to the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue proposing five new action initiatives involving transportation; smart grids; carbon capture, utilization, and storage; energy efficiency; and data transparency.
Taken together, these developments have raised hopes that the so-called Group of Two is finally getting serious about climate change and low carbon development. But are they really?
Yes and no.
Certainly, both China and the United States are facing mounting international pressure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The two countries accounted for 43 percent of global emissions in 2011. China has become the world's top emitter, while the United States remains the largest cumulative emitter since the industrial revolution.
But future emission scenarios present an even bleaker picture. While China once had a low per capita emission level, it is now quickly catching up to average levels in some European countries. And although U.S. per capita emissions have been declining, they remain among the highest among developed countries.
International climate negotiations have so far failed to rein in U.S. and Chinese greenhouse gas emissions. Under the Kyoto Protocol, neither country was subject to the quantified emission limitation or reduction commitments. China was ruled to be exempt on the basis of the "common but differentiated responsibility" principle – a firewall for developing countries granted by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The United States signed the Kyoto Protocol, but never submitted it to Congress for ratification, mainly due to concerns over its industrial competitiveness and the absence of major emitters like China. As Beijing and Washington continue to point fingers at each other while citing historical or future responsibilities, they bear the brunt of responsibility for the gridlock within which international climate negotiations are mired.
It is also clear that disagreement over the best way forward remains a key challenge. The United States prefers to deal with a limited number of large emitters such as those in the Major Economies Forum. China for its part insists that negotiations be conducted through the United Nations, worried that the United States would gain greater negotiating power in a smaller forum that excludes the vast majority of developing countries usually allied with China in U.N. climate negotiations.
But it is not just in the international arena that the two nations face obstacles to progress – there are considerable domestic challenges, too. For example, both Washington and Beijing are reluctant to restrict emissions through caps or carbon taxes. In the United States, failed federal climate legislation is not simply a matter of partisan politics – three presidents, two Democrats and one Republican, foiled U.S. participation in the Kyoto Protocol. The Byrd-Hagel resolution, which prevents the United States from joining an international climate treaty without the participation of all major emitters, was passed unanimously in the Senate in 1997.
True, climate change has been included in China's 12th Five-Year Plan, which sets explicit emission intensity targets, measured by emissions per unit of GDP for each province. But addressing climate change in a global context remains a low priority there since it is seen as conflicting with domestic economic growth. China's climate mitigation efforts in the short run will therefore likely be far from sufficient to convince the United States to sign on to a climate treaty.
And the reality is that if the United States does not offer Beijing any financial and technological assistance, China is unlikely to phase down HFCs at its own cost. Although the Economic Dialogue report identified a set of climate actions common to both countries, it said little about implementation. As a more detailed plan is drafted, a re-instatement of already existing policies would therefore not be surprising.
All this suggests that while an international treaty that sets legally binding emission targets on all countries really needs to be the ultimate political goal, it is clear that Washington and Beijing are not even close to getting there. The best we can hope for, for now at least, is the continuation of the step by step approach to developing bilateral climate agreements.
These initial steps almost certainly won’t result in significant emission reductions in the near-term. But they could ultimately go a long way toward helping to build the trust and establish the common ground necessary for creating a comprehensive climate treaty that actually works.