This is a story that is as much about climate change as it is about the need for solid facts in international reporting. In early June, news outlets – including Planet Experts – reported that China had announced a plan to place an absolute cap on its carbon emissions by 2016. The announcement came one day after President Obama proposed a landmark 30 percent cut in carbon emissions from active U.S. power plants.
China’s cap was viewed and reported as a sign of international cooperation. Together the U.S. and China emit the majority of the world’s pollution, and their combined strides to cut carbon would herald a new stage of environmental activism.
Unfortunately, China promised no such cap.
Tsinghua University Professor He Jiankun is the deputy director of China’s Expert Committee on Climate Change. Reuters quoted him during a Beijing climate-policy conference, wherein the professor stated that China will control its carbon dioxide emissions using intensity and an absolute cap. The New York Times’ Andrew Revkin wanted to confirm this absolute cap, and so he contacted Christopher Buckley, a reporter with the Times’ Beijing bureau. When asked, He Jiankun “repeatedly” affirmed to Buckley that “he did not in any way speak for the government, or the full expert climate committee.”
“I’m not a government official,” He Jiankun said, “and I don’t represent the government.”
To counter global climate change, real progress must be made in the national policies of both the United States and China. The Executive Branch of the U.S. government has begun to make some progress, with both its proposed EPA rule and its commitment to renewables and expanding marine sanctuaries. But these steps are opposed by a Congress that is more indebted to corporate interests than the health of its constituents.
Over the next 20 years, the Energy Information Administration estimates that China’s carbon dioxide emissions will grow to equal the U.S.’s total emissions today. What’s more, this estimate is unlikely to change unless China is willing to restrict its economic development or dedicate significant resources to carbon efficiency programs.
Next year, heads of state from around the world will gather in Paris to begin a new round of talks for an international climate agreement. Past talks have not worked out well, with America failing to commit to the Kyoto Protocols in 1997 and most countries refusing to commit to any legally binding agreements in Copenhagen in 2009.
Countries, and the U.S. especially, must make the case to China that reducing carbon is necessary for the progress of all nations. China’s argument has typically been that the United States and other western countries were allowed over a century of fossil-fueled development that the East is only now enjoying. And this is where international politics becomes a matter of fairness and blame.
Today China emits over one quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions on the planet. The United States is right behind it. Action must be taken by both countries or no progress will result from September’s talks. The world will have to wait to hear what the two nations have to say.