China, Obama and Climate: Roadblocks to a Deal

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MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman, and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. President Obama made a gesture to Japan today on the thorny topic of a US military base on the island of Okinawa. The Japanese would like the based to be moved. And at a meeting in Tokyo with new prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, the president agreed to reconsider the question. Mr. Obama is on his first visit to Asia as president. It's a trip that on Monday will take him to Beijing, for a meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao. High on the agenda is the vexing issue of climate change. The planet's two biggest greenhouse gas polluters are struggling to find common ground before a key climate summit next month. As The World's Mary Kay Magistad reports from Beijing, one big sticking point is the competition for green jobs.

MARY KAY MAGISTAD: With glaciers melting, seasons shifting and weather becoming more volatile, it might seem a no-brainer that it's good to find ways to drive down the costs and increase the supply of clean energy as soon as possible. That's what the Texas wind energy company Cielo says it had in mind when it signed a deal with China's Shenyang Power Group. This is a promo from its website:

ANNOUNCER: ... in the last two years, we've built almost a thousand megawatts of new wind turbines...

MAGISTAD: And Cielo wanted to create even more, a $1.5 billion wind farm that could generate enough energy for 180,000 homes. But the project ran into trouble when a key senator heard the turbines would be manufactured in China. The senator is now trying to block stimulus money for the project. Such situations underline a basic tension in the race to develop clean energy.

ROBERT HORMATS: That's the tradeoff.

MAGISTAD: The tradeoff, US Undersecretary of State Robert Hormats said in Beijing this week, is that Americans want cheap renewable energy, but that may mean seeing some jobs go to China, and that goes counter to how renewable energy has been sold.

HORMATS: Encouraging people to move in this direction, saying it creates American jobs, just as China is saying it creates jobs in China.

MAGISTAD: But it doesn't have to be a zero-sum game, says Barbara Finemore, founder of the China Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

BARBARA FINEMORE: At this point, it's most important to expand the size of the pie for renewable energy, rather than worrying about the slice of the pie. Healthy competition is win-win for both sides.

MAGISTAD: So is finding common ground on ways to slow or stop climate change. China and the United States are the world's biggest greenhouse emitters, but each points to the other when it comes to talk about reducing emissions. Some in Congress reject setting specific targets until China does the same. Chinese President Hu Jintao argued a counterpoint recently at the United Nations:

PRESIDENT HU JINTAO: [speaking Chinese]

MAGISTAD: Hu said developing countries shouldn't be held to the same emissions standards as developed countries. They should do what they can, while continuing to grow their economies.
And growing they are, as millions of Chinese become car-owners, and manufacturing booms. China's emissions are projected to increase for at least another decade, and the impact of unchecked emissions could be dire, according to a new report by some of China's top environmental experts. It says with current trends, the temperature in the crucial Yangtze River Basin, where one-third of Chinese live, will rise 7 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050. Upriver glaciers will melt faster. Floods and droughts will both increase, and crop yields will plummet. Yang Fuqiang of the Worldwide Fund for Nature, which published the report, says urgent action is needed from both of the world's top emitters:

YANG FUQIANG: We need the political will. At this moment, we don't see the US is ready yet.

MAGISTAD: Yang says China has already done a lot to increase its energy efficiency and its use of renewable energy.

YANG: I will also say China can do more, but we like to see fairness. I hope the discussion between President Hu Jintao and President Obama, we like to see what US can do more.

MAGISTAD: China's leaders may yet take more radical action. Yang says, don't be surprised, if China announces an emissions reduction target at the Copenhagen Climate Summit next month, but one to be enforced by China itself, not by international auditors. Meanwhile, he says, there's a lot of room for the world's biggest per capita emitter to lead by example, and he believes President Obama's visit next week, is a good place to start. For The World, I'm Mary Kay Magistad in Beijing.