Rolling Stone recently published this intriguing backstory of the US-China climate change announcement made just two weeks before COP20 kicked off in Lima, Peru.
The bilateral conversation started last February with a phone call from U.S. Special Envoy on Climate Change Todd Stern to his Chinese counterpart, followed up by a private letter to President Xi from President Obama a month later. (Xi had already traveled to the U.S. in the summer of 2013 just after becoming China’s president, to meet with Obama for two days of informal talks that resulted in an agreement limiting HFC emissions.) In early June, the EPA formally announced the Clean Power Plan, aimed to cut carbon dioxide from power plant emissions by 30% by 2030. This development showed the Obama Administration’s seriousness about using its executive branch power to limit GHG emissions. According to Rolling Stone, “a few weeks later, a swarm of U.S. diplomats, including Kerry, Podesta and Stern, flew to Beijing for the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, a high-level diplomatic meeting between the United States and China.” Despite private, data crunching meetings with Chinese officials, they left without a deal. President Obama then sent President Xi “a focused two-page letter on what could be delivered during the November APEC visit to Beijing, and it emphasized the climate joint announcement.” In September, when Xi turned down Ban Ki-Moon’s invitation to the UN Climate Change Summit (going to India instead, where he and Prime Minister Modi signed new trade deals) and sent his VP in his place, little was expected from China in New York. But behind the scenes, VP Gaoli told Obama that Xi wanted to do the deal and announced it at the upcoming APEC meeting. This development set off a flurry of negotiation on the details that still weren’t set when Obama traveled to Beijing for the regional economic meeting.
In addition to providing a somewhat breathless account of these secret negotiations, this gripping article analyzes a number of pragmatic points about the deal.
First is the potential political payoff from closer climate change relations between the world’s current highest GHG emitter (China) and the country it unseated for the top spot. For the U.S. (and other developed countries), it means a breach in the UNFCCC/Kyoto Protocol wall between developed (Annex 1) and developing (nonAnnex 1) countries. As Jairam Ramesh, a member of Indian Parliament and climate negotiator, was quoted, “In one move, Obama and Xi broke the logjam of climate politics. Until now, China has insisted that the U.S. and the EU are largely responsible for climate change. But this raises the bar for other nations.” Of note is China’s influence on other advanced developing countries, like Brazil, South Korea, India, Mexico, and Indonesia. The deal also provides a retort to the U.S. climate change skeptic argument that any U.S. GHG reductions would be for naught given China’s high emissions. As Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island was quoted saying, “now China is doing something pretty significant, while Republicans are still huddled in the dark castle of denial.” For China, with the dramatic announcement on the eve of COP20, President Xi had proven his diplomatic skill by cutting a deal with a world superpower while simultaneously attending to the national need to reduce China’s infamous air pollution.** Second is the economic pay off of this deal for both countries. The stated focus on renewable energy while weaning themselves off carbon-based fuels provides clear signals from the U.S. and China to the business community about where to invest money.
Most interesting for this blogger is the central role that John Podesta is credited for playing in bringing the deal to fruition. Recall our opening question when he was hired by the Obama Administration last December? While he may not have had an impact on last March’s special ADP meeting in Bonn, there is no doubt that he will at this February’s special ADP meeting in Geneva. And more to come in the long term, if Rolling Stone’s conclusion about his role in the next administration proves true!
**This news update: With asthma cases alone on the rise, the Asia Asthma Development Board says that China has the world’s highest mortality rate from asthma, with 36.7 out of 100,000 patients failing to survive.