This week, Seed magazine hosted a discussion on the Copenhagen climate talks — the outcome and the lessons learned — called Good Cop, Bad Cop. Contributing were K.C. Golden, environmental non-profit policy director, Mike Hulme, climate change scientist, Michael Levi, energy security expert, and yours truly. Click over to Seed to see all the contributions. Here’s mine, focused on the new dynamic between the U.S. and China.

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The US and China Pursue Inverse Strategies

US and ChinaThe heart of the Copenhagen climate talks was a clumsy pas de deux between the U.S. and China, part of an ongoing dance with enormous consequences for the battle against climate change. From where I’m sitting, it looks like the US is getting badly out-performed.

The UN climate process is currently governed by the Kyoto Protocol, which contains a sharp distinction between developed and developing countries; it calls on the former to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions but requires nothing of the latter.

China is classified under Kyoto as developing, but the designation is increasingly ridiculous: China’s economy is expected to overtake Japan’s this year, making it the world’s second largest, and it recently passed the U.S. to become the world’s top emitter. The central dilemma of international climate politics, which has the leaders of rich nations chewing their nails, is how to draw China (along with “developing” countries Brazil, South Africa, and India) into the international effort in a serious way.

It’s not clear how to do so. The Chinese Communist Party is overwhelmingly focused on maintaining the country’s rapid economic growth, which for now is largely powered by coal. Unlike poor and small island nations, it doesn’t particularly need monetary aid; it has said publicly that it won’t try to tap into any adaptation financing from industrialized countries. In short, as long as China is protected by Kyoto, it seems to have no incentive whatsoever to commit to anything beyond what it plans to do for purely internal reasons.

And that’s more or less what came out of Copenhagen. China agreed to what it was already planning: a 45 percent reduction in “carbon intensity” that would leave its emissions rising for at least 20 years. The one concession it made is to report on those efforts to the international community every two years (which isn’t nothing, as we’ll see below).

The way it’s usually presented, the US and China are using each other as an excuse not to act. But that’s not exactly true; in fact, the countries’ strategies are the inverse of one another.

The US is talking big talk in international negotiations but doing very little back home. Obama is achieving what he can via executive branch actions, such as boosting fuel-efficiency standards, but serious action awaits legislation. As it happens, a climate bill has finally reached the US Senate. China’s intensity pledge and concession on reporting may be enough to goad that sclerotic, dysfunctional body into passing it, but given the bruising experience with healthcare reform, it must be considered unlikely. Even if it does pass, it’s a fairly weak bill, with a tepid short-term target (putting carbon emissions 4 percent below 1990 levels by 2020), a plethora of loopholes, and in all likelihood a boatload of subsidies for oil and coal.

China, by contrast, is a determined minimalist in international negotiations, as Copenhagen demonstrated, but it’s taking extensive action back home. It has invested hundreds of billions of dollars in advanced research, clean-energy industries, and low-carbon infrastructure from smart grids to high-speed trains. It is striking bilateral deals with the US that would allow it to benefit from American energy research and learn from the EPA about how to track emissions. Reports from inside China say the government expects to easily exceed its 45 percent intensity target.

In short, the US is over-promising and under-delivering; China is doing the opposite. The US can look forward to being vilified as a destroyer of hope, while China can look forward to eating America’s lunch on the most important growth industry of the 21st century.

By now, members of the international community should have learned two things. One is that targets, timelines, and declarations don’t mean much in the absence of national commitment to real action on the ground. The other is that national efforts to combat climate change are an economic and political advantage, not something to be accepted grudgingly at the end of a protracted game of You Go First.

There are increasing indications that behind its placid, implacable, and often maddening facade, China has learned those lessons. I’m not sure the US has.