US-China relations post-COP19

Today’s HuffPost features an article on EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy’s view that China is poised for beijing air qualitya green revolution.  McCarthy sees internal pressures by the rising Chinese middle class on its political leaders to do more on environmental regulation and climate change.  She cited to the now famous example of the U.S. embassy’s air quality monitoring that led to a diplomatic brouhaha – and greater transparency from the Beijing municipal authorities.  Recent school closures and public health threat warnings due to industrial smog recall the Donora, PA killer smog that spurred the fight for the Clean Air Act.  McCarthy made these remarks on the eve of a trip to China to seek ways to work with the Chinese government on environmental regulation.

Venezuela working with the U.S.

Venezuela working with the U.S.

Post COP19/CMP9, as I think about the question most often asked of me – what was accomplished at this negotiation? – I’m struck by the interplay between multilateral and bilateral treaties in making international environmental law.  There is a long tradition of bilateral (think US-Canada Great Lakes Compact and governing Commission) and regional multilateral (think of the Rhine River treaty and its governance structure) environmental treaties that have provided very effective legal and environmental management of common natural resources.  The challenge in addressing climate change is trying to regulate a natural resource – the atmosphere – shared by every country in the world, which is being degraded in a variety of ways through multiple means of pollution.  One legal solution is the UNFCCC, which seeks an all-in approach, and the annual COPs that refine the complex inner workings of this legal compact. Post COP15 in Copenhagen, there have been repeated calls for scrapping the UNFCCC and focusing instead on getting the top 25 emitting countries who contribute some 75% of GHGs to the atmosphere to negotiate a new treaty amongst themselves.

EU working with India.

EU working with India.

But this HP article reminds me of the importance  and potential for bilateral and regional multilateral treaties to add to, not supplant, the work of the Framework Convention.   McCarthy signals the US-China work to come (and we shouldn’t lose sight of the achievements of this past summer) – all of which builds on and adds to the working relationships that are the backbone to broader UNFCCC progress toward a binding legal agreement for all 195 countries in 2020.