Washington and Beijing in tune on climate change?

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The world's biggest polluters join forces and face the music.

It’s not often a US Secretary of State warns climate change is as big a threat as terrorism and “perhaps the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction.“  And it’s even rarer for China’s bigwigs to acknowledge the horrendous pollution afflicting many big cities as an “airpocalypse.”

But that’s the kind of language that’s been bandied about recently, as the world’s biggest and second-biggest economies respectively have started sounding off more loudly about climate change.

The US and China – hardly enthusiasts traditionally when it came to climate change matters – are crucial because they account for such high proportions of greenhouse gas emissions identified as prompting global warming and climate change. The pair account for about 40 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions blamed for rising global temperatures. And they are the world’s biggest users of coal, a fossil fuel whose burning is a major cause of greenhouse gases and other pollution.

So far, international progress on new agreements to tackle climate change have been slow. A major UN conference in Copenhagen in 2009 was not a complete failure. But it certainly didn’t meet many environmental scientists’ expectations. Attention has now switched to the next big UN gathering, to be held in Paris at the end of next year, where much tougher talks on legally binding commitments are due in an attempt to reach a deal to succeed the ground breaking 1997 Kyoto protocol.

While diplomats continue to bicker about responsibilities and burden sharing, the fact that Washington and Beijing – usually diametrical opposite on climate change – appear more inclined to lead is encouraging.

Last July, the two drafted five initiatives to curb carbon emissions, focusing on heavy vehicles, carbon capture, smart grids, energy efficiency and the collection and management of data. The non binding agreement included integrated projects to capture carbon emissions from burning coal, reducing emissions from heavy vehicles and working towards higher fuel efficiency levels, along with cleaner fuels and vehicle emission control technologies.

Just so much hot air? Maybe. But last year’s bilateral steps included agreement on the production and use of hydrofluorocarbons, a key greenhouse gas used in fridges and air conditioners. And after visiting Beijing in February, US secretary of state John Kerry, an evangelist for environmental action, reported further bilateral progress on jointly tackling climate change before the UN conference.

Sadly, details remain sketchy. But the external evidence pointing to the urgency for action has been unmissable. Extreme weather patterns have been more evident than ever this year, with record breaking snow in the US and Japan, relentless rain in Britain, and record temperatures in Australia and Brazil. Many scientists warn the speed of global warming, – and associated climate change – is accelerating.

China has also suffered the consequences. Recent weeks have seen a recurrence of the extreme smog, caused by a mix of climactic factors and pollution, principally from burning coal, that afflicted Beijing and other cities early in 2013. Pollution readings were again almost off the scale, compelling citizens to venture out only with face masks in smog so severe big buildings were barely undistinguishable under the dim orange sun.

Of course, the good intentions voiced by Mr. Kerry and his Chinese counterparts could yet fail – or at least not meet the hopes raised. President Barack Obama has faced fierce resistance in Congress to any measures to curb greenhouse gas emissions – most recently seen in the hostility to his plans for curbing coal fired power stations. The president has had to resort to regulations, rather than new laws requiring Congressional approval, to help meet his promise emissions in 2020 will be 17 per cent lower than 2005 levels. Even many of his new rules have faced complex and lengthy legal challenges.

Trickier still is China. While the government has announced many measures, affecting not just air, but also land and water pollution, implementation has been much harder. Such good intentions can clash with the “growth at any cost” mentality that still imbues many Chinese officials and decision makers. At local level in particular, curbs ordained by the capital can founder on resistance from big industry, which often maintains close links with local politicians concerned above all about growth and jobs, amid fitful transparency and inadequate monitoring and enforcement.

Editor’s note: this article was written by freelance writer Haig Simonian and published by Ilona Braverman. The views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect or represent the views of ABB or its employees.

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About the author

Ilona Braverman

I am the Newsroom Manager with the corporate communications team. Prior to moving to Zurich, I spent over a decade writing, producing, marketing and production coordinating for Fox News in New York City. When I am not working, or enjoying all of the beautiful cities around me, I am busy dancing, cooking or probably making everyone around me howl with laughter.
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