Kate Mackenzie In climate change talks between China and the west, nothing is simple

China will be the focus of this week’s international climate change talks in Bonn – part of many such meetings leading up to the Copenhagen meeting in December. As Fiona Harvey writes in today’s FT, the UN is stepping up its diplomatic efforts and developed countries – particularly the US but also Europe and Japan – are increasing the pressure on Beijing to agree to curb its rapid growth in greenhouse gas emissions. China says developed countries should bear much of the cost of reducing emissions because they have historically been the biggest contributors.

In particular, China wants developed countries to commit to a 40 per cent reduction in emissions by 2020; a contribution of 0.5 to 1 per cent of GDP to developing countries to aid with developing clean technology; and access to relevant technology and intellectual property.

None of those calls are meeting much acceptance from the wealthier countries. “The proposal has been privately dismissed by western diplomats as posturing, but in public officials have been careful to adopt a conciliatory tone,” Fiona Harvey writes. Even in public, they have been less than welcoming: Todd Stern last week said China must ‘be in the game’.

As for emissions reductions; the Waxman-Markey bill (American Clean Energy and Security Act) going through Congress aims for a 17 per cent reduction on 2005 greenhouse gas levels by 2020; whereas Europe is aiming for 20 per cent.  Both fall well short of the 40 per cent China is seeking.

Charles McElwee at China Environmental Law blog says Republican Congressman F. James Sensenbrenner summed up what is likely to be the prevailing US attitude on giving away 1 per cent of GDP by saying:

For the United States that’s $140 billion dollars a year. That money will be borrowed and we will be borrowing it from China as well as other donor nations. And to borrow this amount of money, to turn around and give it back makes no sense whatsoever and I think the Congress will reject it overwhelmingly if it is submitted.

And what of intellectual property?

Steven Chu talked up the potential for sharing intellectual property with China in an interview with the FT last week -  he even suggested open source software for the climate control systems of buildings would be the way to go, perhaps helping reduce the large number of coal plants that China plans to build. But even that won’t happen easily: McElwee also notes, just a week earlier the US Chamber of Commerce and business leaders launched the Innovation, Development & Employment Alliance (IDEA), whose members include GE and Microsoft and which aims to strengthen clean tech IP.

The IDEA members argue that protecting IP creates a market-based incentive to develop ever more energy efficient technologies. Opponents counter that these technologies should be shared freely in the interests of bringing global emissions down.

The Green Patent Blog writes about an EU report that found that strong IP rights would not hinder the transfer of clean technologies to developing countries. Regardless of the substance of either argument, if it is a bargaining point in climate change talks between China, the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter today, and other countries that grew wealthy while contributing to the levels of carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere, it’s an argument that won’t be settled quickly or easily.

Related stories:

Steven Chu: Open source software can reduce need for more coal plants (FT Energy Source, 28/05/09)
Climate focus turns to Beijing (FT, 01/05/09)