WASHINGTON — China's top climate negotiator's visit to Washington on Monday sent a fresh signal that the two countries, which account for about half the world's greenhouse gas emissions, have a long way to go to reach a common agreement on how to cut emissions to prevent serious climate change.
China wants to become a "low-carbon society," but can't say when that will be achieved. And it doesn't want to be held accountable for emissions it produces to make goods for export, said Li Gao, the director of China's climate change office.
Li described China's actions and plans on climate while the head of China's negotiating team met with his American counterpart at the State Department. The meeting was part of the preparations for global negotiations on an agreement to reduce emissions in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December.
China plays a big role as the world steps up efforts to hold back global warming.
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With 1.3 billion people and large industrial base, China is the world's biggest source of heat-trapping gases from coal, oil and gas, just ahead of the U.S.
Many members of Congress say that they'll only support mandatory emissions limits at home if China acts too. And other countries are looking to see what the U.S. will do to cut emissions before they make commitments of their own toward an international agreement due in December.
China shouldn't have to take responsibility for the 15 percent to 25 percent of its emissions that result from making products for the rest of the world, said Li, the director of the Department of Climate Change in China's National Development and Reform Commission. He spoke at a briefing sponsored by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, a nonpartisan research organization.
"For many developing countries, not only China, we produce the products for the consumers, especially in developed countries," Li said. He argued it wouldn't be fair to hold China accountable because "we are on the lower end of the economic chain of the global economy."
Li also said that it would be a "disaster" — and possibly the start of a trade war — for the U.S. to impose tariffs on imports from China or other countries that didn't have mandatory emissions controls. He said the tariffs would be unfair and a violation of trade rules.
Action by China will be critical for any chance for any global solution to global warming. The 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change outlined the dangers of letting temperature rise beyond 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit.
Many reports in the past two years find that the effects of warming are happening faster than predicted.
Last week, international scientists meeting in Copenhagen for a conference on climate change told world leaders that recent observations confirmed "the worst-case IPCC scenario trajectories (or even worse) are being realized."
The report added that many changes, such as average global temperature and changes in the ocean, were "already moving beyond the patterns of natural variability within which our society and economy have developed and thrived" and that "there is a significant risk that many of the trends will accelerate, leading to an increasing risk of abrupt or irreversible climate shifts."
President Barack Obama has said the U.S. would follow scientific advice on climate and would reap benefits — including new jobs — from a shift to cleaner energy.
Li said that China saw shifting away from fossil fuels was in its own long-term interest, "but I cannot tell you what time we can achieve it, because there's not a format in the world," he said. "I think if developed countries can give us an example, if the global economy can structure to a low-carbon type, that will be helpful for the developing countries to learn the experience and follow the trend."
China's plans call for it to reduce energy intensity — the amount of energy needed for each unit of gross domestic product — and to increase renewable energy to 15 percent of total energy supply by 2020. China also intends to expand the use of biogas in rural areas, plant more trees and expand research in clean energy.
The Chinese delegation was in Washington to talk about China's climate policies and its negotiating position for international climate talks, but not to try to reach any agreement with the U.S., Li said.
"We think that climate change is a global challenge," he said, and that it had to be addressed within the United Nations climate framework. Those negotiations are meant to reach an agreement in December, though some experts predict 2010 is more likely.
State Department spokesman Robert Wood said the meeting was "a beginning, and we'll see where it leads." He added that the Chinese were willing "to really engage on the subject of climate change, and we welcome that."
Elliot Diringer, the vice president of international strategies for the Pew climate center, said the big issues to be worked out are what emissions targets developed countries will set, what developing countries will agree to do and what support developed countries will provide to help them.
"There's quite a distance to go on those," he said.
The U.S. will have a stronger negotiating hand if it makes progress on its own climate plan first, Diringer said.
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the chairman of the energy and commerce committee in the House of Representatives, plans to release a draft version of an emissions reduction bill soon.
Obama's budget outlined a plan that would cap emissions, reduce that level annually and set up a system for companies to buy and trade emissions permits. The theory is that companies would have incentives to conserve energy or develop renewable energy.
The president's plan would return most money from the sales of emissions permits to low- and middle-income Americans.
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