On climate, US gives China a free pass (or not) – updated

The Guardian headline was unequivocal: “The US will exempt China from binding greenhouse gas targets.”

Guardian environment correspondent, David Adam, had had a chat with Jonathan Pershing, who leads the American climate delegation, and Pershing had told him that only developed countries need take on binding targets to reduce emissions. “We’re saying that the actions of developing countries should be binding, not the outcomes of those actions.”

Now, that’s a big deal. After all, back in 1997, the US Senate made it crystal clear that it had no intention of ratifying Kyoto unless the agreement included “new specific scheduled commitments to limit or reduce greenhouse gas emissions” for all developing countries, and China, Mexico, India, Brazil, and South Korea in particular.

Now, you can argue the toss about the merits of the US position (my personal view is that China should bind itself at Copenhagen to an agreed date by which its emissions will peak), but for Obama’s team to say at this stage – do a bit more on energy efficiency and renewables, and we’ll give you a free pass on targets – would be astounding.

Turns out Der Spiegel has a more detailed and much clearer interview with Pershing.

SPIEGEL: But the Chinese don’t want to accept legally binding reduction targets for CO2. Does the US still insist on such a commitment?

Pershing: Yes, definitely. We are still asking them to commit to legally binding CO2 reductions as part of a Copenhagen agreement.

SPIEGEL: With only five months left until the Copenhagen summit, do you think such a compromise will be possible?

Pershing: We are working very hard to achieve a good solution. The US remains focused on a legally binding agreement and on concluding that agreement in Copenhagen. We expect all developed nations to commit to comparable reduction targets and we want more countries to belong to the group of industrialized countries than today, for example Korea. Major economies with large total emissions like China should take additional steps, including a quantitative and quantifiable set of actions with a legal requirement to implement those actions.

So what gives? A fine line between ‘reductions’ and ‘targets’? Pershing going off script? Or sloppy reporting from the Guardian’s journalist?

(Via @tancopsey on Twitter – follow me @davidsteven.)

Update – And we have our answer – sloppy Guardian reporting. Its original story went up online at 14.53 BST, but was extensively revised and corrected at 18:31 (the old version simply disappeared, but there’s a copy below).

The new headline: “US says it will not demand binding carbon cuts from China.” So targets are still on the table; immediate absolute reductions are not (and they never were – the idea is utterly implausible).

David Adam’s original story (in full – emphasis added):

The US will not demand that developing countries such as China take on binding targets to cut pollution under a new treaty to fight global warming, a senior official in the Obama administration confirmed today.

Jonathan Pershing, head of the US delegation at UN climate talks in Bonn, said developing nations would instead be asked to take certain actions, such as to improve take-up of renewable energy and to boost energy efficiency standards.

Only developed nations, including the US, would be expected to meet binding targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, he said. “We’re saying that the actions of developing countries should be binding, not the outcomes of those actions.”

The pledge is included in a US blueprint for a new global deal on climate change submitted to the Bonn meeting. Along with other submissions, it will be discussed in the build up to key UN talks in Copenhagen in December, where the UN wants a new deal on global warming to be agreed. It follows high level talks on climate change between the US and China in Beijing this week.

The US plan, if approved, could effectively replace the existing Kyoto Protocol, which the US has distanced itself from since it was agreed in 1997. Pershing said it was based on the need for developed nations to cut greenhouse gases 80% by 2050.

The relevant section of the corrected version, now with a joint byline with Suzanne Goldberg:

Progress towards a global treaty to fight climate change took an important step forward today when the US said it would not demand that China commits to binding cuts of its greenhouse gas emissions.

The move came on the last day of the latest round of UN climate change talks involving 183 nations, which aim to produce a deal in Copenhagen in December.

Jonathan Pershing, head of the US delegation in Bonn, said developing nations – seeking to grow their economies and alleviate poverty – would instead be asked to commit to other actions. These include boosting energy efficiency standards and improving the take-up of renewable energy, but would not deliver specific reductions. He said: “We’re saying that the actions of developing countries should be binding, not the outcomes of those actions.”

Only developed nations, including the US, would be expected to guarantee cuts. The pledge was included in a US blueprint for a climate change deal submitted to the Bonn meeting, which Pershing said was based on the need for the rich nations to cut greenhouse gases 80% by 2050.