U.S., Chinese emissions cuts are key to climate treaty

President Obama wrapped up his tour of Asian countries, which included stops in Japan, Singapore, China and South Korea. He addressed security and environmental policy, the economy and U.S.-Asia relations.
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 16, 2009

The scaled-back climate strategy endorsed Sunday in Singapore by President Obama and other leaders could put pressure on the United States and China to resolve the biggest stumbling block to an agreement -- how much they will cut greenhouse-gas emissions in the next decade.

Hoping to lower expectations for next month's U.N.-sponsored talks in Copenhagen, leaders at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit endorsed the proposal by Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen for a limited, short-term climate agreement that would be finalized as a legally binding treaty in 2010.

The new approach -- "one agreement, two steps," as Rasmussen called it -- would have all 192 countries participating in the talks sign an agreement on major parts of the negotiation, including mitigation, adaptation, technology and finance.

Neither the United States nor China -- which together account for roughly 40 percent of the world's greenhouse-gas emissions -- has outlined specific climate targets for 2020, a key sticking point for the negotiations. Obama administration officials have said they are reluctant to identify a near-term goal until Congress passes climate legislation, which will not reach the Senate floor before next year. China's leaders argue that, as a developing country, it should not be bound to specific reductions under any international treaty.

Obama will meet this week with Chinese President Hu Jintao, whose country already has ambitious short-term goals to expand its renewable energy sources, improve its energy efficiency and plant trees in order to absorb carbon from the atmosphere. Jintao has said China will soon take on a carbon-intensity reduction target, but he has not identified what it will be.

Although the United States historically ranks as the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, China is expected to account for 50 percent of the growth in global emissions over the next 20 years, making its output nearly 60 percent higher than the U.S. amount by 2020.

Some environmental activists decried the APEC decision. Kaisa Kosonen, climate policy adviser for Greenpeace International, said Rasmussen "has become complicit in a U.S. so-called 'deal' which would put Obama's political difficulties ahead of the survival of the world's most vulnerable countries."

But Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group, wrote in an e-mail that "an extension -- months not years -- could be worthwhile if countries use the time to firm up their commitments to reduce their global warming pollution and to finalize all the details of an international structure to ensure that those commitments are met. Especially since the lack of clarity about what the U.S. would actually be able to commit to is limiting the willingness of other countries to firm up their commitments."

Myron Ebell, director of energy and global warming policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, said the announcement "is just more evidence that the wheels are coming off the global warming bandwagon. . . . Many of these negotiators realize they are going to have a very difficult time maintaining economic growth while also reducing emissions."

Ebell added, however, that he could envision the Obama administration using the delay to push harder for legislation that would cap the nation's overall greenhouse-gas output and would allow emitters to buy and sell pollution allowances.

"It gives the U.S. Congress another shot to pass cap-and-trade before a new treaty is signed," he said. "Now perhaps the Obama administration will go back to the Senate and say, 'We really need this to get passed in order to get this moribund treaty process going again.' Maybe we'll have more work on that end."

Staff writer Anne E. Kornblut in Singapore contributed to this report.

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