The news that the US and China are at loggerheads over a deal on cutting carbon emissions is old news indeed. Both countries are huge polluters, and both have a lot to lose in the short term by increasing regulation and by extention, costs.
But US President Barack Obama says he can still salvage a deal between the US and China during his trip to Asia this week. Is this empty talk? Obama’s climate change envoy Todd Stern has already gone on record as saying that no deal would be reached during Obama’s visit, and that the aim was to develop “a common understanding” on climate change issues and deepen cooperation on clean energy, not to reach an agreement on carbon emissions targets. The US cap and trade bill currently wending its way through the legislative process is enjoying support best described as tepid, and the final product is likely to be drastically watered down. So is Obama going to make a genuine deal or to figure out a way to deflect blame and make excuses to the Europeans?
The essential problem with a deal between the three big polluters – China, India and the US – is that while their leaders may be in favor of reform, there is little evidence that their constituencies are willing to risk economic sacrifice in the name of a cleaner tomorrow. But they strongly believe everyone else should.
China wants the US to take the lead in cutting emissions and giving financial support to developing countries who need to develop green technology. This means effectively means using US tax dollars to help incubate Chinese cleantech competitors who will threaten green job creation in the US while enjoying protected market access at home.
The US thinks that China and India, as two of the three biggest polluters in the world, should be making more concrete commitments to cutting their carbon output, but this means shoving emissions restrictions down the throats of low-end export manufacturers, who are a powerful constituency quite concerned about their ever-thinning margins.
The Europeans are in a typically self-righteous snit. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has threatened to throw the toys out of the pram and boycott Copenhagen if the US, China and India cannot reach a deal. This is an aggressive tactic, no question, but to be fair to the German chancellor, most will agree that the time has come for polluting nations to put up or shut up.