Todd Stern in China – faux pas or change of tack?

At the end of his three day visit to Beijing this week Todd Stern, the US Climate Change Envoy, held a press conference with the Chinese press at which he said that China was doing great and the US didn’t expect China to commit to a cap on its greenhouse gas emissions (unsurprisingly this made the first page of the China Daily, the main English language mouthpiece of the Communist Party).

Ironically, this comes just days after the China Daily misquoted Wen Jiabao as saying that China would commit to emissions reduction targets in its 12th Five Year Plan, when in fact what he said was that China would consider introduce emissions intensity targets (see article here). 

Readers of the China Daily would thus be forgiven for thinking that China was poised to introduce a carbon emissions reduction target, only to be told by the US that this wasn’t necessary or expected!  

Many in the environmental community here (in Beijing) were stunned by Todd Stern’s comments: although there are reasonable grounds for conceding on this particular point, given absolute targets are a negotiation red line for the Chinese (not least because they are unrealistic in the short run), many feel that this upfront concession and the notable softening in tone would likely reduce the US’s leverage in pushing on other points, and preempted any discussion in particular on sectoral targets, something the Chinese would have been open to discussing (incidentally I do not see how Todd Stern’s remarks would preempt a discussion on sectoral caps). Todd Stern’s remarks are all the more surprising when considering his aggressive posturing ahead of the visit. The Times reported that: 

America’s leading climate change negotiator will urge China to make a commitment to cutting greenhouse gas emissions during meetings in Beijing this week, as the US seeks to avoid the collapse of the next global warming treaty.

Just a couple of weeks earlier, Pelosi and Kerry were in town trying to persuade the Chinese leadership that any deal that didn’t include a firm commitment to emissions reduction by the Chinese would get torpedoed in Congress. The Chinese can be forgiven for feeling confused! 

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Leo Horn

About Leo Horn

Leo currently serves as Director for International Cooperation at the World Resources Institute (WRI). Prior to that he had worked in UNDP, the World Bank and DfID. He worked for six years in China where, from 2006-2009 he led a pioneering cross-governmental partnership between the UK and China on sustainable development, initiated by Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Wen Jiabao, and involving 17 government ministries/agencies. In parallel, he co-founded the China Carbon Forum and led it to become a thriving professional association serving as the key interface between the business community and senior Chinese government decision-makers on climate policy reform issues. Leo writes here in a personal capacity and his views do not necessarily reflect those of WRI.