Exclusive: Have China and the U.S. been holding secret talks aimed at a climate deal this fall?

For those of us who believe that maintaining a livable climate pretty much depends on a U.S.-China deal on greenhouse gas emissions (see here), the Guardian‘s story Monday was a bombshell:

China and US held secret talks on climate change deal

“¢ Negotiations began in final months of Bush administration
“¢ Obama could seal accord on cutting emissions by autumn

But was the story true?  Turns out I know one of the key players:

My sense is that we are now working towards something in the fall,” said Bill Chandler, director of the energy and climate programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the driving force behind the talks. “It will be serious. It will be substantive, and it will happen.”

I’ve known Bill since my DOE days, so I called him to get the scoop.  He says the story is mostly true — and thus a true potential breakthrough that may well lead to a major announcement in the fall — but it has inaccuracies, including the nature of the deal being discussed.  Let me try to separate fact from hype and examine what China might be willing to commit to (assuming we makes serious commitments, too, a la Waxman-Markey).

Bill explained that the talks were not secret, but were merely off the record.  Indeed, Carnegie had written about the talks back in March here.

The Guardian is correct that “The first communications, in the autumn of 2007, were initiated by the Chinese. Xie Zhenhua, the vice-chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission, the country’s central economic planning body.”  The Guardian puffs up the role of the Bushies in this talk (see here), but in fact these talks were designed to get around the Bush administration intransigence on the issue.

Bill told me that Minister Xie “said that the Chinese government took the science of climate change seriously” and wanted help figuring out who they should talk to given the pending US election and the fact that the “Bush administration wasn’t doing anything.”  China wanted to have off the record meetings with “potentially influential people” in the U.S. Presidential campaigns so that official negotiations could “hit the ground running” once a new administration was in power.  China wanted to achieve an understanding with the United States before the big international climate negotiations meeting in Copenhagen this December — hence the desire to start the dialogue before January 20 of this year.

Bill told me, “I personally have the opinion that a deal is in reach.”  That, of course, begs the question of what the deal is, which I discussed with Bill at length.  Here is where the Guardian got the story quite wrong:

Chandler said he and Holdren drew up a three-point memo which envisaged:

  • Using existing technologies to produce a 20% cut in carbon emissions by 2010.
  • Co-operating on new technology including carbon capture and storage and fuel efficiency for cars.
  • The US and China signing up to a global climate change deal in Copenhagen.

“We sent it to Xie and he said he agreed,” said Chandler.


The reporter, like many people, has confused carbon emissions and energy intensity.  China had previously announced a goal to cut energy intensity (energy per GDP) by 20% by 2010, which from my perspective was not much of a target, since it didn’t stop an accelerated use of coal even if they had met their annual efficiency targets, which they didn’t.

The priority is to get China off its staggeringly unsustainable trajectory of coal consumption and carbon dioxide emissions growth of the first part of this decade.  If they don’t, they can single-handedly finish off the climate no matter what we and the other rich countries do.  Now the good news is that China has an excellent track record on achieving gains in energy efficiency — see “China’s amazing energy efficiency policies of the 1980s and early 1990s” — has begun to ramp up its efficiency efforts and aggressively expand its carbon-free electricity targets (see “China to triple wind goal to 100,000 MW by 2020“).

China is almost certainly not going to agree to a hard cap this year.  And it is not news that China has been contemplating a strong carbon intensity (CO2 per GDP) target (see 2007 China Post story).  But it would be news if, as Bill says, they are willing to publicly agree to aggressive and enforceable energy efficiency and carbon intensity targets, including the 50% carbon intensity cut by 2020.

Bill also believes that “a hard cap in emissions is possible” by China for 2025 with a major inflection point around 2020.  He points out that Jiang Kejun, director of the Energy Research Institute, one of China’s leading policy thinktanks, has been delivering a very strong presentation about how China could quickly move toward a low-carbon economy.   In March 2009 Jiang gave a presentation, “Low carbon scenario up to 2050 for China” to the 18th Asia-Pacific seminar on climate change, in which he lays out how China could meet the following low carbon (LC) scenario [The figure is in million metric tons of carbon dioxide, and the LC scenario is the curve on the bottom]:

But now we are getting way ahead of ourselves.  Before the cap, China needs to show itself and the world it can achieve a sharp slow down in emissions growth.

Thus, first, we need to get a deal with China, hopefully before Copenhagen, that includes some serious, verifiable commitments.  Needless to say, that presupposes the United States itself can pass a law like Waxman-Markey that puts us on the path to sharply reduce our emissions.  Presumably, Obama would have to commit to targets similar to those in Waxman-Markey.  If the bill passes the House by the early fall, and then Obama gets a China deal, that would of course make Senate passage of the bill in the winter far more likely — which just happens to be very similar to the timetable I have been advocating, see “Should Obama push a climate bill in 2009 or 2010? Part I, Does a serious bill need action from China?

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17 Responses to Exclusive: Have China and the U.S. been holding secret talks aimed at a climate deal this fall?

  1. John Boy says:

    It might not matter, if GM and Chrysler can’t do any better than Honda’s new hybrid vehicle

    Really, to get an idea of how awful it is, you’d have to sit a dog on a ham slicer.

    Trouble right here in River City

    The Boy of John

  2. David B. Benson says:


  3. As I recall the scenarios for China are very bleak and arriving soon — mostly based on loss of water supply from mountain glaciers – they may have far more to lose than the US or Russia. If the water loss situation in Peru is an example – a harbinger that motivates.

  4. Robert says:

    I would hazard a guess that the world – and China – will expect the most aggressive cuts from the countries that have the largest per-capita emissions. I know its an old argument but it isn’t going to go away.

    W-M could hardly be called aggressive.

    [JR: Actually, it is more aggressive than any other major nation has ever enacted into law by far.]

  5. Robert says:

    Joe – W-M’s headline CO2 targets are fine (80%+ cut by 2050). What bothers people is the detail of how it will be achieved. The whole structure of permits and offsets looks very shaky to me, and we will be a long way down the road before failure becomes apparent. This piece points out the problems better than I can:

    Just to make absolutely sure this post never sees the light of day(!) when did “rip-offsets” return to being good old offsets? (you can clip that bit!)

    [JR: Bob — the reason I don’t like your comments and often delete them is they waste my time. I have already explained why domestic offsets are currently “rip-offsets” but why they won’t be under Waxman-Markey in a long post (in short, regulations and a cap).]

  6. Steve Bloom says:

    “W-M could hardly be called aggressive.”

    “[JR: Actually, it is more aggressive than any other major nation has ever enacted into law by far.]”

    Unfortunately both things are true.

    Even so it has been excruciatingly clear for a while that the needed progress will depend more than anything on a U.S.-China deal, so it’s encouraging to get confirmation that one is in view.

    JB and David, having read the entire column, I have to say that Clarkson is, in the immortal phrase of Click and Clack, a moron. (The promotional photo of him taking a sledgehammer to a car is perhaps a hint.) While I’m perfectly willing to believe that the new Honda hybrid has major problems, bear in mind that car companies produced failed models pre-hybrid and will certainly conrinue to do so going forward. If that’s the case here it’ll mean a short-term gain for competitors and a revised Honda model next year. Eh.

  7. Leland Palmer says:

    They need to go carbon negative, but even more so than the rest of the world:

    These emergency strategies, developed specifically for the grim scenario of ‘Abrupt Climate Change’ (ACC) consist of systems based on carbon-negative bioenergy. The Abrupt Climate Change Strategy Group (ACCS), whose mandate is to study ACC and its mitigation, writes that this concept, also known as ‘bioenery with carbon storage’ (BECS), is one of the few cost-effective and safe geo-engineering options that can be implemented at once and globally. If applied widely, BECS systems can radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and bring back atmospheric CO2 levels by mid-century.

    The ACCS was launched in the wake of the G8’s Gleneagles Summit in 2005, to study strategies to cope with “abrupt” forms of global warming. The IPCC’s new wording gives credence to the ACCS concepts. This is what ACCS scientists said in one of their papers:

    Abrupt Climate Change (ACC – NAS, 2001) is an issue that ‘haunts the climate change problem’ (IPCC, 2001) but has been neglected by policy makers up to now, maybe for want of practicable measures for effective response, save for risky geo-engineering. A portfolio of Bio-Energy with Carbon Storage (BECS) technologies, yielding negative emissions energy, may be seen as benign, low risk, geo-engineering that is the key to being prepared for ACC.

    Under strong assumptions appropriate to imminent ACC, pre-industrial CO2 levels can be restored by mid-century using BECS. – Peter Read and Jonathan Lermit

  8. hapa says:

    (it sounds like nobody told jeremy clarkson to turn off “ECON” mode. we already know he’s not smart enough to figure it out for himself.)

  9. hapa says:

    (the loony’s review of ford’s fit/insight killer, for reference)

  10. Peter Wood says:

    The Australian National University recently hosted an Australia China Climate Change Forum that included some senior Chinese academics Jiahua Pan and Yongsheng Zhang who discussed possible frameworks in which all countries take on emission reduction commitments.

  11. Peter Wood says:

    The W-M reduction of emissions to 20-30% less than 2005 levels amounts to a per capita reduction compared to 1990 levels of 25-35%. The EU commitment to reduce emissions to 20-30% below 1990 levels amounts to a per-capita reduction compared to 1990 levels of 24-34%. When compared to 2005 levels, the EU commitment doesn’t amount to the same level of per-capita reductions because the EU has already reduced its per capita emissions significantly.

    The issue is that the US has per-capita emissions that are over twice as high as those of the EU. This demands a much higher emission reduction for the US, and also highlights that the US is likely to have much more low-hanging fruit. I disagree that W-M is more aggressive than any other major nation has ever enacted into law by far. But it is a good start.

  12. paulm says:

    The average UK citizen uses 125kWh/d and US uses 250 KWh/d

    (One kilowatt-hour (kWh) is the electrical energy used by leaving a 40-watt bulb on for 24 hours. )

  13. Rick Covert says:


    What exactly does “carbon intensity reductions” mean. It almost sounds like what the definitin of “is” is. (With apologies to Clinton)

  14. DavidCOG says:

    John Boy,

    Don’t pay attention to anything Jeremy Clarkson says – he’s an ‘entertaining’ idiot. If a car doesn’t consume more than 20mpg or exceed 150mph, it’s a target for his ‘comedy’. And anyone who has an interest in the environment is an unwashed hippy that spends all day sitting on the grass, eating tofu and playing whale music.

    Really, he’s an idiot. In fact, he’s dangerous – he promotes the idea that it’s all a big joke, consuming as much as you can.

  15. Sasparilla says:

    This is very good news that this was and is being done with China (they were pushing for it) – thank god. A little more hope here.

  16. David B. Benson says:

    Rick Covert — I think carbon intensity is per capita carbon per year.

  17. Peter Wood says:

    My understanding is that carbon intensity is the amount of greenhouse gas emissions per unit of GDP. That is the definition that the McKinsey Global Institute used.