Stern On China: Transparency Is ‘Highly Important’

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"Stern On China: Transparency Is ‘Highly Important’"

Our guest blogger is Julian Wong, Senior Policy Analyst with the Energy Opportunity team.

In an exclusive interview with Todd Stern, the U.S. special envoy for climate change, I discussed the challenge of ensuring a successful climate partnership with China, now the world’s greatest annual emitter of global warming pollution. Ahead of his visit to Beijing next week to meet with his Chinese counterpart, Stern was asked if he will discuss the problem of accurately accounting for carbon emissions — known among climate negotiators as “measuring, reporting, and verifying” (MRV). Stern replied that the way China’s actions “might be quantified” will “absolutely be part of the discussion,” but explained that he considered specific accountability mechanisms a lower-level concern:

I don’t think we’re going to be having a kind of textual discussion at this point with the senior people that I’m going to be dealing to actually try to be drafting what the text of an MRV provision would look like in an overall agreement. But implicitly that will be an important part of the discussion, because transparency and what the numbers add up to, whether it’s China, the US, Europe, Japan, or Brazil, it’s highly important, because it’s the thing that tells us if we’re going to be on track to do what we need to do over the next several decades.

Watch it:

In fact, MRV has to be the foundation of a new global accord to solve the climate change problem — if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. But one has to really wonder if China is up to the task. Much has been written about the lack of accountability, transparency and enforceability in China’s governance system. Moving towards a system of open information and transparent reporting, let alone accountability, will require a real cultural shift. Building the capacity to accurately collect and report emissions data — potentially politically sensitive for Chinese institutions — will be a long and gradual process that must reach into the provincial and municipal and local levels.

The challenge is especially daunting, considering that 55 percent of the population remains in underdeveloped rural areas where local governments have scarce budgetary and technical resources. Cooperative efforts like the pilot carbon registry in southern China are fantastic starting points because they demonstrate success at a smaller local level. As the Chinese become more comfortable with the concept of an accountable carbon registry, such efforts should be extended, accelerated, and replicated in other parts or sectors of China.

In the interview, Stern also recognized China’s impressive efforts on clean energy but also cautioned that China must do more. The International Energy Agency projects that China is on course for a 70 percent increase in emissions to 12 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions in 2030. If China commits in some kind of international agreement to efforts that change that outlook, “that could be highly important”:

What we’ve said with respect to China and other major developing countries is that they need to take a set of real actions, that they should be able to quantify them, that they need to commit to them in an international context, and that they need to add up to something that puts us on track to be in the general vicinity of what science tells us we need to do. So, the IEA projection is just a business-as-usual projection, not taking into account policy changes and policy measures that we hope the Chinese will do. They’ve already, as I’ve said, they’ve done a lot, but they need to do a lot more. So, if they do a bunch of things and if that turns out to be a substantial move off their business-as-usual curve, that could be highly important.

If China is going to play constructive role a new global consensus in Copenhagen, it is apparent that China is going to have to commit to a course that takes it down from this trajectory.

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