Tianjin by Numbers

For China Dialogue, Sam Geall gives a sum-up of the recent climate change negotiations in Tianjin:

The United States and China, the world’s two largest greenhouse-gas polluters, traded blows. OK, not really: disputes were conducted in the arcane, theological discourse of the UN framework convention. QERCs and QELROs; MRVs and ICAs. For the uninitiated: numbers, and how to count them. And it’s these numbers that still hold up progress.

China opposed certain forms of monitoring of its domestic greenhouse-gas targets, but accused the United States of using negotiations about this issue to stall progress on targets themselves. A member of the Chinese delegation, who on Thursday spoke to chinadialogue on condition of anonymity, said of the talks: “The US constantly refused to start the discussion on quantified emission reduction commitments [QERCs], instead sticking to technical issues like MRV [measurement, reporting and verification], thinking that these more practical and detailed issues must come first.” He continued: “Talking about MRV but not discussing targets is like talking about the design of a ruler before you know what you are going to measure.”

The next day it was the turn of Todd Stern, the US special envoy on climate change, to accuse China of bad faith, telling an audience at the University of Michigan Law School that Chinese negotiators had acted “almost as though the [Copenhagen] accord never happened”. Stern’s deputy, Jonathan Pershing, suggested that China had moved away from previous agreements on transparency, telling the South China Morning Post: “What we are seeing now in this negotiation is that countries are very wary and very unwilling, moving away from the reporting, not from actions.”

So, what lies behind these exchanges? Transparency is a smaller part of the puzzle than Pershing’s comments might suggest. Rather, the dispute seems to hinge on how the United States and China formalise and internationalise their domestic pledges on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, on the part these commitments would play in a future, legally binding treaty. In other words, it’s not about the counting so much as the numbers.