By Julian Wong Dec.18.2009
In: climate change

Has a U.S-China agreement on transparency been reached?

Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectant”Louis Brandeis, U.S. Supreme Court Justice from 1916-1939

And of course, sunlight is also a very important source of renewable energy.  Ahhh the beauty of sunlight as a metaphor for both “process” and “a solution” for climate action!  Here’s a re-post of something I scribbled this morning on ClimateProgress in reaction to Premier Wen and President Obama’s speeches in Copenhagen.

Has a U.S-China agreement on transparency been reached?  Possibly.

Today, China’s Premier Wen Jiabao (see full translation of text here) and American President Barack Obama (see full text as delivered here) delivered important statements at a high level session in Copenhagen.  At first blush, neither seemed to offer anything other than reiterating past actions and promises to work hard together towards a final deal.  But a closer look at the nuances of both their discussions about the transparency in mitigation actions, a little exercise of connecting the dots, suggest that there is more than meets the eye.

If you believe much of media reports out there, the United States and China have been locking horns on the issue of transparency of mitigation actions.  There three troublesome letter of M, R and V (for “measurable, reportable and verifiable”) has taken center stage in the dynamics between the two biggest greenhouse gas emitters.

Wen reiterated that China’s carbon intensity reduction goal was a domestically binding target that would be enshrined in its national social and economic development plan.  Now the word “plan” may sound flimsy to the Western law and policy eye, but what the world needs to understand is that when a national target is embedded in such a plan, for instance China’s Five Year Plan, it is equivalent to a Supreme Court decision in the United States-it is the law of the land.  Wen went on to touch address the hot button issue of transparency directly:

We will further enhance domestic surveillance and monitoring methods, increase transparency and actively engage in international dialogue and cooperation.

Now this by itself may not seem like much, and in fact top climate journalists like those at the New York Times did not detect anything significant here.   But to close observers of the Chinese position, one only needs to hearken back to yesterday’s words of He Yafei, the Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs, when he said at a press conference:

China’s government will, in the national economic and social development plan, have a category for the reduction of carbon intensity of carbon emissions. It will also formulate correspondingly statistical monitoring and verification regime inside China that is legally binding in China. And we promise to make our actions transparent.

We promise the implementation of these actions will be under the supervision monitoring of the law and by the media. We are willing to enhance and improve the ways of national communication. The purpose is to enhance transparency. We are also willing to have explanations of clarifications if need be. We will also consider in terms of mitigation actions international exchange dialogue and cooperation that is not intrusive that does not infringe upon China’s sovereignty.

Heard in the context of He’s words, Wen’s linkage of “transparency” and “international dialogue and cooperation” is no coincidence.  It suggests that China is willing to commit to transparency that meet some level of international standard that is determined in some sort of collaborative, multilateral fashion (“dialogue and exchange”).  If this is indeed the intent of Wen’s words, and He’s remarks the day before suggest they are, then this is a positive and constructive step forward on the MRV issue.  (Recall also the US-China agreement in November on transparency and collaboration on capacity building to establish a robust greenhouse gas inventory in China.)

What did Obama have to say on the topic of transparency when he came to the podium a short while later?  He was firm, but provided an opening:

We must have a mechanism to review whether we are keeping our commitments, and exchange this information in a transparent manner. These measures need not be intrusive, or infringe upon sovereignty. They must, however, ensure that an accord is credible, and that we are living up to our mutual obligations. Without such accountability, any agreement would be empty words on a page.

I don’t know how you have an international agreement where we all are not sharing information and assuring that we are meeting our commitments. That doesn’t make sense. It would be a hollow victory.

Obama makes clear that transparency is one of his three pillars to any successful global climate deal (mitiagation and finance being the other two), but very obviously chose his words carefully to address, for the first time, China’s concerns of intrusiveness and sovereignty.

We actually shouldn’t be completely surprised by this unfolding of events.  As was already pointed out in the first week of these Copenhagen proceedings, the revelation of the text by the BASIC countries (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) already provided hints that China would be willing to make even its voluntary actions subject to “any guidelines the Conference of Parties may elaborate” and also have such actions “be made publicly available for full transparency.

Recipients of Obama’s remarks as prepared may have noticed some deviations in his speech as delivered.  Towards the end, Obama said in his speech:

We are ready to get this done today but there has to be movement on all sides to recognize that it is better for us to act than to talk.

This sentence was NOT in his prepared remarks,  suggesting additional optimism that Obama felt coming out of the impromptu leaders meeting that was held just before these public sessions.  Shortly after Wen’s and Obama’s individual speeches, it was reported in the twitterverse that Obama and Wen met for a 55 minute close door session and “made progress” on the three pillar issues of mitigation, transparency and finance.

This is a positive sign that the two countries are closing the gap on the divisive transparency issue, and lends credence to the E&E report (sub’s reqd) two days ago that progress was being made on precisely this front.

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  1. Rumors, Intimation, and, Eventually, a Deal « THE CLIMATE POST Dec.18.2009@10:41 pm Reply

    [...] trickled out in the last hour. China watcher Julian Wong, at Green Leap Forward, first noticed progress in the two leaders’ public remarks that other observers either missed or did not see, and the [...]

  2. The Green Leap Forward 绿跃进 » How Did China Fare in Copenhagen? A Critical Analysis by Someone Not in the Room Dec.27.2009@12:45 pm Reply

    [...] be done in a way that “ensures national sovereignty is respected,” a specific concern voiced by Vice-Foreign Minister He Yafei. President Obama likened this system to that of the WTO.  The biennial national communications [...]

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