Yes, the House climate bill helps make a deal with China possible, and yes, the New York Times got the story wrong

We have a real chance of a deal with China before the big international talks in Copenhagen this December (see “Exclusive: Have China and the U.S. been holding secret talks aimed at a climate deal this fall?“). But it won’t be easy, especially since the 2020 target in the Waxman-Markey climate bill falls far short of the 40% cut from 1990 levels that China recently demanded developing nations achieve by 2020.  A confused New York Times story yesterday noted, “A leading Beijing expert on climate change economics, Zhang Shiqiu, said Wednesday that she was optimistic that the two nations would reach some accord on global warming before the Copenhagen meeting,” but then misreported, “The Center for American Progress, a Democratic-leaning research organization, said in a report published Wednesday that the House legislation was unlikely to win enough Chinese support for the two nations to present a united front at the Copenhagen talks in December.”  In fact, leading international experts from CAP also believe a deal is doable — and that Waxman-Markey helps — as they explain in a post first published here and reprinted below (along with their response to the NYT).

UPDATE:  The Times has agreed to correct the mistake in their story.  The squeaky wheel does get greased!

We are now entering the six-month period before the U.N. climate change negotiations in Copenhagen, which are intended to hammer out a successor treaty to the Kyoto protocol that expires in 2012. Progress on climate policy domestically will increase U.S. leverage in these talks, but President Barack Obama should look for additional ways to improve the American negotiating position than what we currently have on the table.

In particular we need a better accounting of what the United States””and other countries as well””are doing to achieve meaningful carbon reductions. Importantly, a more detailed analysis would reveal that the American Clean Energy and Security Act, or ACES, recently passed through committee by Congressmen Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Edward Markey (D-MA), would achieve more carbon reduction than first meets the eye.

The soft underbelly of ACES is its 2020 midterm carbon cap targets, which have been assailed by some environmentalists. At 17 percent below 2005 levels these targets apparently give the Obama administration precious little to meet global expectations about U.S. action on climate change. For starters these caps fall below the European Union’s agreed-upon 20 percent reductions below 1990 levels by 2020. If we were to meet our allies at these goals then the European Union will increase their midterm reductions to 30 percent. At its current levels ACES does not trigger this critical shift.

More troubling, there are already clear signs that ACES’s targets are far less than we need to garner China’s full engagement in an international agreement on capping emissions.

China, now a larger emitter than the United States, will not sign on to any sort of hard limits to its emissions without a clear commitment by the far-richer United States to do so. To create some negotiating room for itself, Beijing has publicly called for much more aggressive cuts from the developed world””a 40-percent reduction by 2020 from 1990 levels. The U.S. State Department negotiating team, under the leadership of Center for American Progress’ former Senior Fellow Todd Stern, has already indicated that this is an untenable goal for the United States, regardless of what some may consider the possibility of such cuts. This is disappointing especially now that China is taking these issues more seriously than ever before and is showing signs that they may be prepared to commit to some sort of mandate under a new treaty. The coming summer of climate negotiations is already looking long and hot.

Are we then at an impasse? Possibly not. If we look beyond the stated target caps in ACES at the potential reductions in greenhouse gases from its complementary requirements for energy efficiency and intensity improvements, as well as the additional reductions that could potentially be captured by other parts of the legislation in verifiable offsets, then the picture improves. What we essentially need is a different accounting measure which will show the full potential of the legislation to make reductions in emissions below business-as-usual, or BAU scenarios by the energy provisions of the bill plus a flexible architecture in the legislation which can get more cuts down the road. We suggest measuring such progress using “carbon cap equivalents” as a way of profiling a country’s commitment to meeting emissions reductions.

With this carbon cap equivalents approach the better measure of what each country is doing is derived by adding up the full range of supplemental and complementary proposals to each country’s carbon cap and converting this into one comparable figure of what these emissions reductions would effectively amount to if they had been the result of a carbon cap alone. The modeling will be complex, but we should open up the language of the hoped-for Copenhagen treaty so that signatory nations can demonstrate their acceptance of the treaty goals through such equivalents””representing the full range of their policy profile to reduce greenhouse gas emissions””above and beyond their formal cap.

A recent proposal by the Australian delegation to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change Ad-Hoc Working Group on Long-Term Cooperative Action calls for something similar to what we are suggesting. Namely, they propose that in Copenhagen we allow countries to meet their nationally appropriate mitigation targets through measures over and above a carbon cap. This is not an attempt to side-step the goals of the UNFCCC process, but rather to provide a more honest comparison of what we are all doing in ways that are not only appropriate for our particular economic histories but also are compatible with the restrictions and opportunities provided by our individual policy frameworks.

If we were to take this broader view, and take measure of the full breadth of complementary actions contemplated by the proposed Waxman-Markey legislation, then we get a different picture of the potential impact of this legislation. According to a recent study by the World Resources Institute, if one considers the full range of complementary provisions in the Waxman-Markey bill, in addition to the “cap-and-trade” portions, such as international forestry projects, industrial performance standards, residential energy-efficiency measures, and international offsets, then emissions reductions of up to 23 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 are realizable””an outcome that would actually meet the European Union’s standards. WRI further projects that such a full range of actions under the bill would lead to emissions reductions of 77 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, a result consistent with what is needed by the international community as a whole to contain the increase of average global temperatures to the catastrophe-averting limit of 2°C.

So too for the way we should approach our negotiating position with the major emitters in the developing world. China appears to be making steady progress toward its goal of achieving a 20-percent reduction in energy intensity by 2010. But because we have framed the solutions to global warming only in terms of the formal carbon caps that have been accepted by a given country, the American media and policymakers don’t generally count other improvements in a country’s carbon profile in their assessment of the country’s commitment to the process or of their real improvements. This needs to be changed in order to get a fair comparison of what everyone is doing.

For example, if one were to look at the last major attempt to push legislation through on climate change in the United States””the Lieberman-Warner Act, which failed in the U.S. Senate last summer””analysis at that time by the Center for Clean Air Policy suggested that the combined unilateral activities of China, Brazil, and Mexico in improvements in energy efficiency and energy intensity would achieve greater effective reductions in carbon emissions below BAU by 2010 than the emissions targets the proposed U.S. legislation would achieve by 2015.

Nonetheless, one of the major objections to Lieberman-Warner, which we are hearing again today in the debate over Waxman-Markey, was that it wasn’t worth doing in a world where China was doing nothing. A more rigorous assessment of what they were doing then could have produced a different assessment of that legislation. A clearer-eyed view of what we all are doing now to make progress could produce a different assessment of what we can get out of the U.S. Congress, and next, the Copenhagen meeting.

So, where do we stand now? ACES is most likely as good as the politics of this moment can possibly deliver. And when a full accounting is given of what can be achieved in terms of its carbon cap equivalent, it becomes a more attractive piece of legislation than it at first may appear. This legislation is not too ambitious for the House and Senate to eventually pass. It could be sufficient as a positive incentive to move along Copenhagen or other international treaties on climate change as well so long as we open up the playing field and allow everyone to count the full measure of their improvements in energy efficiency, intensity, and other complementary polices as part of the demonstration of how they are pulling their weight.

The community of nations needs to be open to such creative solutions to continue to make progress on climate change. In many ways, the Copenhagen process is already far more advanced, nuanced, and realistic than the Kyoto negotiations ever were. Countries are discussing the nitty gritty of greenhouse gas limits, sector by sector, and discussions of registry and verification techniques are far more detailed than ever before. The deadline that the world set for itself this coming December has become the mother of diplomatic invention. Now is the time to step up and deliver from this enormous bounty of creativity that has been spurred by this deadline.

Andrew Light and Nina Hachigian are Senior Fellows, and Julian Wong is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress. To read more about the Center’s energy and environment policy proposals and our China recommendations, please go to the National Security and Energy and Environment pages of our website.

Shortly after its publication on the Center for American Progress website, this article was picked up in a seriously distorted article in New York Times by Mike Wines. Below is reprinted Andrew Light’s response.

Wines’ article at best takes out of context one of the premises of the arguments and at worst seriously distorts the thesis of our piece. It should be corrected or more simply just taken out of his story. Wines never contacted any of us about this piece. Here’s the paragraph where he mentions our column:

American officials have already rejected the Chinese proposal as unattainable. The Center for American Progress, a Democratic-leaning research organization, said in a report published Wednesday that the House legislation was unlikely to win enough Chinese support for the two nations to present a united front at the Copenhagen talks in December.

The point of our column is in fact the opposite. What we argue is that there is a way the US and China can come together at Copenhagen, even with the differing expectations on midterm targets, and that the current House legislation could be sufficient to get us there.

What we call for is, first, counting the complimentary efficiency, intensity, and other allied programs, in addition to the actual midterm cap goals in Waxman-Markey, to show the legislation could potentially get us closer to what China wants from us than at first it may appear. We use, among other things, recent World Resources Institute data on the bill to demonstrate this. Next we argue that you could use a similar approach (which we call “carbon cap equivalents”) to demonstrate that China is making progress on emissions cuts and further counter the argument that Waxman-Markey should not be adopted because “China won’t do anything.” Of course we state that at present there is a gap between China and the US on midterm expectations — they want 40% cuts below 1990 levels from us by 2020 as opposed to Waxman-Markey’s 17% cuts below 2005 levels by 2020 — but use this only as a premise to set up our argument about a better accounting of what Waxman-Markey could actually get us. We even state explicitly that the gap between Chinese expectations and the Waxman-Markey bill is *no* reason to believe we are at an impasse for an agreement at Copenhagen.

In short one would be hard pressed to give a more distorted representation of our piece. You can disagree with the analysis but that’s of course not my point. If the paragraph is supposed to suggest that their is a rift between us and Pelosi on this issue it simply isn’t the case. No one would deny that the numbers are different between Waxman-Markey and what the Chinese now claim that they want. The point is that we’re with the supporters of the bill in seeing a way forward to an agreement with it.

[JR:  Needless to say, a serious deal with China before Copenhagen would be a big boost to the chances of Senate passage of Waxman-Markey.]

5 Responses to Yes, the House climate bill helps make a deal with China possible, and yes, the New York Times got the story wrong

  1. Peter Sergienko says:

    Assuming that state and regional renewable power standards and carbon emissions limits that exceed federal standards and limits will still be pursued following the adoption of federal legislation, that would seem to be relevant in measuring United States performance and to assist in international negotiations. In essence, does the federal legislation become a floor, not a ceiling, with some regions, states, and even cities doing more? During the Bush administration the states become the trial ground for RPS and greenhouse gas legislation. Standards and limits in excess of contemplated federal standards and limits are on the books in many states. I don’t think I’ve seen anything on this issue in analyses of Waxmen-Markey–does the federal legislation supplant regional, state and local efforts or does it simply set a floor?

  2. Peter Wood says:

    This article makes a lot of interesting points. The question of what developed countries need to do in order to be acceptable to developing countries is a very important one. How to get a proposal for the United States that would be acceptable to both developing countries and the US congress is very difficult.

    I do not agree that US emissions reductions of 77 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 is consistent with “what is needed by the international community as a whole to contain the increase of average global temperatures to the catastrophe-averting limit of 2°C”. If the US reduced its emissions by 77% by 2050, then its per-capita emissions would be 3.17 tonnes (assuming a 2050 population of 403.9 million). For this to be consistent with international reductions, global per-capita emissions would also be 3.17 tonnes. This results in global emissions of 29 Gt CO2-e.

    The model from Meinshausen et al.’s recent paper in Nature can then be used to convert this into a probability of exceeding 2 degrees of warming. They have a spreadsheet that is part of supporting online material that does this. this gives a likelihood range of 28-69% of exceeding 2 degrees. This is too high a probability of exceeding 2 degrees. I would not hop on a plane if there was a 28-69% chance of crashing.

    If the US cannot get enough emission reductions through congress then it needs to find a way to do much more financing of emission reductions in developing countries. China is not impressed with what has been proposed so far. Professor Jiahua Pan, from a prominent Chinese think tank, was not impressed, according to a recent interview:

    “China is not at all impressed with Obama,” Professor Pan told the Herald. “Obama’s statements are certainly insufficient and his demands for developing countries are unrealistic.”

  3. paulm says:

    The US has more emissions that they think to reduce.

    China rightly argues that much of its emissions are virtual US and European because of remote production. They want to see the West take part responsibility for some portion of these.

    This will be a big bone of contention at Copenhagen.

    Stern breaks the east-west deadlock on who’s responsible for CO2

    China says it’s unfair that the west ‘outsources’ emissions. Now that Lord Stern has said responsibility should be split between producers and consumers, other countries may follow suit

    …greenhouse gases produced in one nation on behalf of another. The UK, for example, is comfortably meeting its commitments under the Kyoto protocol only because much of our manufacturing industry has moved to China. Under Kyoto rules, the pollution produced by Chinese factories making goods for the UK belongs to China. The protocol counts only the production, not the consumption, of greenhouse gases.

    China says this is unfair. Around half the recent increase in its emissions arises from the manufacture of goods for western markets.
    This pollution should, it says, belong to the consumer nations, not the producers. A successor to the Kyoto protocol which did not recognise this would punish China for our consumption.

  4. Peter Wood says:

    paulm, you make a very interesting and important point. There is a strong argument for allocations to be based on consumption rether than production because consumption is more closely related to utility. Developed countries, with higher per-capita utility, get some of this utility from purchasing goods from developing countries including China.

    I’m not sure what the best approach to this issue is. Accounting for consumption would be more complex than direct emissions, my recollection is that a matrix may need to be inverted and trade data would be needed. Would this be consistent with accounting for historical emissions?

    An underlying issue is that emissions are generally associated with either basic needs, infrastructure or consumption. If emissions reductions from major developing emitters were conditional on millennium development goals being achieved or something similar, huge amounts of progress could be made.