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In Battle for U.S. Carbon Caps, Eyes and Efforts Focus on China

China reduced energy use by 1 percent in 2006, short of the 4 percent target.
China reduced energy use by 1 percent in 2006, short of the 4 percent target. (Associated Press)

Others see the tariffs or fees as efforts to sink climate-change legislation. "China's rapidly growing emissions are a serious issue," Phil Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, said in an e-mail. "But many diehard opponents of enforceable limits on global warming pollution who now can't hide behind the science are trying to hide behind China. Note who keeps raising the China issue: the coal industry, the oil industry, members of Congress from coal states and the auto industry. They raise threats to American competitiveness that are bogus, on the whole."

Some businesses are taking their own steps to influence Chinese behavior -- and polish their own images as "green" companies. Yesterday computer maker Dell, which spends $16 billion a year on Chinese-made parts, said it would add a question about carbon emissions to the quality-performance reviews it gives its suppliers. "The total score is a big part of whether they get our business," said Dell spokesman Brian Hilton, who also said the carbon emissions would be worth two points, often enough to send Dell to a different supplier.

Whether these measures will alter Chinese behavior is uncertain. China has argued that it should not have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions because the average person in China emits a fifth of the greenhouse gases and consumes a seventh of the energy that the average American does. It has set continued economic development as its top priority.

China's own climate-change plan issued Monday was seen as only a modest step forward. Though the plan backed ambitious targets for fuel efficiency and the use of renewable energy, it did not back greenhouse-gas targets.

Will Bush's proposed negotiations alter that? China experts note though Bush is seeking to negotiate with senior Chinese leaders, the government often has little to do with investment decisions by companies, cities or provinces in need of electric power.

"It raises interesting questions about engagement," said Erica Downs, a China energy expert at Brookings. "Whom do you engage with?" She noted that while the Chinese government set an energy-efficiency goal for every year through 2010, it reduced energy use by only 1 percent in 2006, short of the 4 percent target.

That's why many U.S. groups are trying to engage local, provincial and business leaders and convince them that energy efficiency would not only slash greenhouse-gas emissions but would also make economic sense. The NRDC has staff in China pointing out to decision makers at different levels that cutting energy use could ease bottlenecks and burdens on overloaded railroad and power-transmission lines.

Other experts on China doubt that retaliatory duties will work better than Bush's approach. "Stick-based approaches are not likely to be very fruitful," said Lewis of Pew. "China could just as easily walk away from something like that."

Many lawmakers and environmental groups say the best strategy is for the United States to lead by example. "China is using the United States as an excuse for doing next to nothing to deal with their greenhouse gas problems," said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. "Anything we do back toward China will be viewed as hypocritical, like preaching of temperance from a bar stool."

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