For those of us who believe that maintaining a livable climate pretty much depends on a U.S.-China deal on greenhouse gas emissions (see here), the Guardian’s story Monday was a bombshell:

China and US held secret talks on climate change deal

• Negotiations began in final months of Bush administration
Obama could seal accord on cutting emissions by autumn

But was the story true?  Turns out I know one of the key players:

My sense is that we are now working towards something in the fall,” said Bill Chandler, director of the energy and climate programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the driving force behind the talks. “It will be serious. It will be substantive, and it will happen.”

I’ve known Bill since my DOE days, so I called him to get the scoop.  He says the story is mostly true — and thus a true potential breakthrough that may well lead to a major announcement in the fall — but it has inaccuracies, including the nature of the deal being discussed.  Let me try to separate fact from hype and examine what China might be willing to commit to (assuming we makes serious commitments, too, a la Waxman-Markey).

Bill explained that the talks were not secret, but were merely off the record.  Indeed, Carnegie had written about the talks back in March here.

The Guardian is correct that “The first communications, in the autumn of 2007, were initiated by the Chinese. Xie Zhenhua, the vice-chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission, the country’s central economic planning body.”  The Guardian puffs up the role of the Bushies in this talk (see here), but in fact these talks were designed to get around the Bush administration intransigence on the issue.

Bill told me that Minister Xie “said that the Chinese government took the science of climate change seriously” and wanted help figuring out who they should talk to given the pending US election and the fact that the “Bush administration wasn’t doing anything.”  China wanted to have off the record meetings with “potentially influential people” in the U.S. Presidential campaigns so that official negotiations could “hit the ground running” once a new administration was in power.  China wanted to achieve an understanding with the United States before the big international climate negotiations meeting in Copenhagen this December — hence the desire to start the dialogue before January 20 of this year.

Bill told me, “I personally have the opinion that a deal is in reach.”  That, of course, begs the question of what the deal is, which I discussed with Bill at length.  Here is where the Guardian got the story quite wrong:

Chandler said he and Holdren drew up a three-point memo which envisaged:

  • Using existing technologies to produce a 20% cut in carbon emissions by 2010.
  • Co-operating on new technology including carbon capture and storage and fuel efficiency for cars.
  • The US and China signing up to a global climate change deal in Copenhagen.

“We sent it to Xie and he said he agreed,” said Chandler.

No.

The reporter, like many people, has confused carbon emissions and energy intensity.  China had previously announced a goal to cut energy intensity (energy per GDP) by 20% by 2010, which from my perspective was not much of a target, since it didn’t stop an accelerated use of coal even if they had met their annual efficiency targets, which they didn’t.

The priority is to get China off its staggeringly unsustainable trajectory of coal consumption and carbon dioxide emissions growth of the first part of this decade.  If they don’t, they can single-handedly finish off the climate no matter what we and the other rich countries do.  Now the good news is that China has an excellent track record on achieving gains in energy efficiency — see “China’s amazing energy efficiency policies of the 1980s and early 1990s” — has begun to ramp up its efficiency efforts and aggressively expand its carbon-free electricity targets (see “China to triple wind goal to 100,000 MW by 2020“).

China is almost certainly not going to agree to a hard cap this year.  And it is not news that China has been contemplating a strong carbon intensity (CO2 per GDP) target (see 2007 China Post story).  But it would be news if, as Bill says, they are willing to publicly agree to aggressive and enforceable energy efficiency and carbon intensity targets, including the 50% carbon intensity cut by 2020.

Bill also believes that “a hard cap in emissions is possible” by China for 2025 with a major inflection point around 2020.  He points out that Jiang Kejun, director of the Energy Research Institute, one of China’s leading policy thinktanks, has been delivering a very strong presentation about how China could quickly move toward a low-carbon economy.   In March 2009 Jiang gave a presentation, “Low carbon scenario up to 2050 for China” to the 18th Asia-Pacific seminar on climate change, in which he lays out how China could meet the following low carbon (LC) scenario [The figure is in million metric tons of carbon dioxide, and the LC scenario is the curve on the bottom]:

But now we are getting way ahead of ourselves.  Before the cap, China needs to show itself and the world it can achieve a sharp slow down in emissions growth.

Thus, first, we need to get a deal with China, hopefully before Copenhagen, that includes some serious, verifiable commitments.  Needless to say, that presupposes the United States itself can pass a law like Waxman-Markey that puts us on the path to sharply reduce our emissions.  Presumably, Obama would have to commit to targets similar to those in Waxman-Markey.  If the bill passes the House by the early fall, and then Obama gets a China deal, that would of course make Senate passage of the bill in the winter far more likely — which just happens to be very similar to the timetable I have been advocating, see “Should Obama push a climate bill in 2009 or 2010? Part I, Does a serious bill need action from China?

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