Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Report from Stern's visit to Beijing

Todd Stern and a US climate cooperation delegation made an appearance at a roundtable discussion at Tsinghua University today, which CGS weaseled itself into. It was "off the record," so to to maintain whatever journalistic integrity it has, CGS will only refer to general comments and threads of discussion (Chatham House rules).

With one exception, a really good, but unattributable quote: "We are mindful of the unforgiving imperative of the atmosphere." Well, CGS for one will sleep a little better knowing that.

Unfortunately, the rules of the game haven't changed: China still emphasizes the need for growth and development, while the US side slowly chips away at China's protests that it is a developing country, noting that China cannot claim to be as helpless in the face of climate change as, say, Haiti.

However, the roundtable did come closer to identifying a key negotiating front than previous sessions: technology cooperation. The Chinese side, possibly because it was dominated by representatives of the energy and engineering bureaucracy, constantly called for technology transfer. The US side forthrightly said that the United States has neither the monetary resources nor the political will to finance China's clean energy transformation: it can purchase the technology on the open market. What's needed, they said, is closer to an equitable (presumably meaning the US won't pay) "technology cooperation" arrangement.

A possible foundation for compromise emerged when Chinese representatives responded by saying that the US can do more to promote development of technologies that meet China's needs as a developing country, something most feasibly done through private-sector partnerships. Governments, meanwhile, can collaborate on enhancing China's capacity for clean technology deployment and implementation, especially in the area of measuring, verifying, and reporting emissions.

That might be something Congress can live with. But one big hurdle remains, and one recognized by both sides: intellectual property (IP). Both sides noted that there's a lot of misunderstanding on this issue, that China is actually better on some IP issues than it's given credit for, and that there's a whole range of technologies, mostly in energy efficiency, where IP issues are not a significant impediment.

So long and short, a focus of continued negotiations should be on capacity building in technology transfer, not simply discussion of the transfer and financing itself. To offer some CGS commentary, the Chinese side didn't seem to be budging much, but that's understandable: at a minimum, the US has to pass domestic cap and trade legislation before China can be expected to make any concessions. But you do have to take a step back and think: a bunch of earnest, capable people all speaking frankly about the importance of US-China climate cooperation for the future of the world. That would have been almost unimaginable a year ago.

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