Kate Mackenzie China-US climate talks: Where the media coverage matters

Are the US efforts to persuade China to commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions falling on deaf ears?

The visit by US energy secretary Steven Chu and commerce secretary Gary Locke to Beijing follows several visits by other high level officials including Hillary Clinton and Todd Stern, but The New York Times described Hu and Locke gave ‘by far the strongest criticisms yet, and the clearest demands that China take action’. The newspaper said Hu pointed out that China would emit more in the next thirty years than the US has in its entire history, if current growth rates continue.

Even more sharply, Locke said: ““Fifty years from now, we do not want the world to lay the blame for environmental catastrophe at the feet of China.”

However the story points out that Xinhua, the official news agency, did not report any of those comments in its coverage of the speeches,  instead focusing on Chu’s comments on the need for cooperation between the two countries and Locke’s acknowledgement that the US had been using fossil fuels for 150 years and that the two countries shared a special responsibility, because they together produce 42 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. China Daily, another official outlet, led with the Chu’s comments about the US leading climate change efforts.

Of course the US press could be accused of focusing on China’s reluctance to award clean energy contracts to foreign companies. The LA Times also touches on the subject in its first day report and the New York Times ran a piece on the subject on Monday:

But Mr. Chu and Mr. Locke arrive as Western companies, especially Europeans, are complaining increasingly about Beijing’s green protectionism.

China has built the world’s largest solar panel manufacturing industry by exporting over 95 percent of its output to the United States and Europe. But when China authorized its first solar power plant this spring, it required that at least 80 percent of the equipment be made in China.

The press coverage in the US will probably matter more than that in China, however.  The public perception there of China’s willingness to bear some of the pain of reducing greenhouse gas emissions will be a big factor in whether, and in what form, the climate change bill passes the Senate, as Republican Senator Richard G. Lugar told the L.A. Times:

“The American domestic debate on the issue will be profoundly influenced by perceptions of China’s willingness to set aside doctrinaire positions and agree to verifiable steps to limit greenhouse gas emissions.”

China’s government, of course, doesn’t have quite such a sensitive task.

Related links:

China seeks dominance in clean energy (New York Times, 14/07/09)