China Refuses To Put Climate Commitment In Writing

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The biggest stumbling block at the U.N. Climate talks in Copenhagen appears to be China's refusal make a legally binding commitment to reduce its green house gas emissions. The U.S. refuses to accept any deal that is not in writing. China has said it wants to see more action from rich nations before it signs on.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

ARI SHAPIRO, host:

And I'm Ari Shapiro. Good morning. In Copenhagen, time is running short for a new climate deal. Negotiators remain far apart. One of the major issues is a dispute between the world's top two carbon dioxide emitters: China and the United States. At the heart of the dispute is whether China will promise in writing to limit its emissions. So far, China says there's no chance of that happening. NPR's Richard Harris reports from Copenhagen.

RICHARD HARRIS: Around Thanksgiving, China announced an ambitious domestic plan to start controlling its carbon dioxide emissions - not to reduce them exactly, but to slow the rate at which those emissions are growing. It was a breakthrough for the climate talks - actually, half a breakthrough. That's because China refuses to put its commitment in writing in an international deal.

He Yafei, China's vice minister of foreign affairs, said last week that in his view only developed countries like the United States have an obligation to put their climate commitments in writing.

Mr. HE YAFEI (Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, China): If we're asking developing countries to do the same, to be applicable under the same standards, that goes against the letter and the spirit of the Bali Action Plan.

HARRIS: The Bali Action Plan was negotiated two years ago, leading up to Copenhagen. And there was a huge fight then over the language of whether developing countries needed to have measurable, reportable and verifiable commitments under the plan. The Bali meeting nearly broke down over that issue. The outcome was ambiguous language. And He is sticking to his interpretation of it. China has no obligation, he says.

Mr. YAFEI: It's a matter of principle. That being said, it doesn't mean China will not do what it promises. We're very serious about it.

HARRIS: U.S. negotiators say they don't doubt that sincerity, but they still need it in writing. The U.S. Senate rejected the Kyoto climate treaty precisely because it didn't include binding commitments from China and other rapidly growing economies.

How did we get to this impasse? It's partly because China wants to see more action from the rich nations of the world before it signs on. One huge sticking point is there's very little aid money on the table in Copenhagen for the developing world, and that's key for a deal. But it's also true that once China has promised to limit its emissions, it then needs to open up a bit and show the world its business to prove that it's meeting those targets.

Annie Petsonk at the Environmental Defense Fund says this is obviously intrusive, and countries give up a bit of precious sovereignty when they agree to treaties that include verification.

Ms. ANNIE PETSONK (Environmental Defense Fund): We're very accustomed to that kind of thing. But for other countries that haven't done that yet, this is something very new and very challenging.

HARRIS: And it would be especially challenging for China. The emissions reduction goal they announced is a cut relative to their economic growth, their GDP. That means they not only have to show their emissions data, but they'd also have to verify their GDP, since it's part of the promise. And that's really tough.

Ms. PETSONK: Well, for one reason, there's no agreement on how to measure GDP. What goes into calculating GDP statistics? It's a whole field unto itself.

HARRIS: Petsonk says at some point, China may need to rethink its emissions reductions goal to make it much simpler to measure. That's clearly not on the cards here in Copenhagen, though. Elliot Diringer at the Pew Center for Global Climate Change says China's reluctance to agree on this point may also be a bargaining tactic. After all, the United States isn't putting its best offer on the table. It's not going to commit to emissions reductions until the Congress passes domestic climate legislation.

Mr. ELLIOT DIRINGER (Pew Center for Global Climate Change): And because what countries are offering at this stage is provisional, we may not actually be in the best position at the moment to get everybody's best offers.

HARRIS: U.S. diplomats say they've been meeting with their Chinese counterparts to talk about this. Yesterday, the head of the U.S. delegation, Todd Stern, seemed to sound hopeful.

Mr. TODD STERN (Head of the U.S. Delegation, United Nations): I actually think that we're going to get there with China, but, you know, don't know for sure yet. But it is a tough issue, but it's just one that I think is necessary in order to have an environmentally sound agreement.

HARRIS: This is one issue that could well be kicked upstairs and left for President Obama and China's Premier Wen Jiabao to settle when they get into town later this week.

Richard Harris, NPR News, Copenhagen.

SHAPIRO: And despite the challenges in reaching an agreement, President Obama has expressed confidence that a climate deal can be worked out before the summit ends on Friday. The president's due to arrive in Copenhagen Friday morning.

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