Chasing after China

U.S. and China cooperation breaks down over MRV

The United States and China disagree over MRV: the measuring, reporting and verification of greenhouse gas emissions.
© Getty Images

In the final hours of the negotiations, many observers concluded that the Copenhagen summit came down to two countries, the United States and China, and their disagreements over MRV: the measuring, reporting and verification of greenhouse gas emissions.

Todd Stern, the chief U.S. negotiator said that the U.S. would not sign any agreement that doesn't include stringent verification measures to monitor China's emission reductions. On Thursday Hillary Clinton delivered the same message, and on Friday President Obama made the issue of "transparency" central in his address to the plenary session at the Bella Center. China says that it won't sign any agreement that allows international inspectors to monitor China. The Chinese delegation has stated that it will agree to MRV, but on its own terms and using internal resources.

And MRV will be an essential component of China's environmental strategy as the country strives to meet the target of reducing energy intensity per unit of economic output by 40-45% by 2020 from the 2005 level — the goal stated by China's State Council on November 25, 2009. China has set ambitious targets and is undertaking massive shifts towards lower-carbon development, including setting high fuel economy standards for vehicles, financing and installing renewable energy, establishing a large-scale manufacturing base for electric and hybrid vehicles and building up public transportation systems in all of China's major cities.

But this is the issue that has served as a lightning rod between the U.S. and China as the countries" two leaders debate the terms of the climate deal that will be reached here in Copenhagen. It's no coincidence that this is the fault line of the debate. The Obama administration is not the first U.S. administration to put pressure on China to increase its transparency, open up its political process and submit to international norms. Each president since Nixon opened diplomatic relations with China in 1972 has toed that line. To China, it's not a friendly stance. Increased transparency, political openness and submitting to international norms that in some cases violate China's sovereignty has been interpreted as a threat to the very foundation of China's governmental structure. Thinly veiled as responsible environmentalism, the U.S. is demanding, in short, that China abandon its own style of governing and instead adopt policies derived from Western concepts of democracy and political participation.

This is not to say that the stated goal of Obama's position is not valid. We do need China to come up with some system of reliable, accurate, consistent and verifiable data on emissions reductions. And methodologies used for accounting must be consistent with international best practices and standards so that a ton of carbon is the same every where in the world. But there is no reason China cannot come up with a mechanism to produce reliable, accurate data on its own. How would the U.S. feel if the tables were turned and China was demanding that the U.S. allow international inspectors to verify the accuracy of EPA data?

This disagreement aside, there was another elephant lurking in the Bella Center that did not get enough attention: carbon accounting methods. China's emission data is tricky business and the production-based accounting system that is now considered standard protocol needs to be reexamined. China is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world today, but the over 90% of the emissions that are currently causing climate change in the atmosphere were caused by developed countries. Moreover, the U.S. is a much larger emitter of emissions if measured on a per capita basis. To add to the accounting dilemma, we must also consider that over one quarter of China's emissions can be sourced back to products that are manufactured for export to Western markets. So is it really fair to say climate change is all China's fault just because they are the largest emitter today?

Another challenge to the conventional methods of carbon accounting is emerging as China is becoming a leader in the wind and solar power industries. China produces 40% of the world's solar panels, most of them for export. The manufacturing of wind turbines and solar panels is in and of itself a carbon-intensive process — so as China helps the world move to a low-carbon economy by producing green technology at economies of scale, making it affordable for even poor countries, China's own carbon footprint is growing. It is clear that not only the verification process needs to be re-considered, but also the first step — the methods of calculation — of greenhouse gas emissions needs to be reexamined.

There is still a long way to go before the U.S. and China can understand each other and work cooperatively toward emission reductions and a low-carbon economy. But there is some hope. The fact that China has agreed that verification is an important component of reduction targets is a good sign. There has been significant signaling by the government that China is taking climate change seriously and that it will fulfill or even exceed the reduction targets it sets. The big question is what will reporting and verification look like in China in the next year as we lead up to the second round of climate talks in Mexico City next year.

LUCIA GREEN-WEISKEL is project manager of the Energy and Climate Registry for the Innovation Center for Energy and Transportation.

CONTACT: Innovation Center for Energy and Transportation; China Climate Registry.