U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Japanese Minister for Foreign Affairs Fumio Kishida conclude their joint press conference in Tokyo, Japan, on April 14, 2013. Image: Flickr/U.S. Department of State
Secretary of State John Kerry signed climate change agreements with China and Japan over the weekend, making the issue he championed in the U.S. Senate a centerpiece of his first Asia tour.
Both declarations of cooperation stressed practical measures aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and mostly ignored the contentious U.N. climate change negotiations. But analysts said the agreement between the United States and China -- which pledged to "set the kind of powerful example that can inspire the world" -- has the makings of a major move forward, putting the world's two largest emitters at the center of serious clean energy work.
Speaking at a clean energy seminar in Beijing, Kerry warned that climate change is happening at a faster rate than scientists predicted 20 years ago and said the United States and China have a particular responsibility to rein in greenhouse gases.
"China and the United States represent the world's two biggest economies, we represent the world's two largest consumers of energy, and we represent the two largest emitters of global greenhouse gases. So if any two nations come to this table with an imperative for action, it is us," Kerry said.
"What the United States and China decide to do with respect to this, whatever energy initiative we embrace together ... the two largest economies in the world will send a signal to the world about how serious we are about this," he said.
Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the agreement "raises expectations that both the United States and China will move forcefully to confront the threats of climate change." But, Meyer added, "The proof of the pudding, of course, will be in the details of the 'large-scale cooperative action' that the two countries develop over the next three months."
As part of the agreement, the United States and China put climate change on the agenda for a high-level meeting of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, which meets in July.
Focus on short-term pollutants and building efficiency
Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern will lead the climate change working group to the dialogue, partnering with China's lead climate official, Xie Zhenhua, vice chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission.
The two will be charged with "identifying new areas for concrete, cooperative action to foster green and low-carbon economic growth, including through the use of public-private partnerships, where appropriate." The United States and Japan, meanwhile, agreed to hold new bilateral talks on a range of climate issues.
The agreements come just days after a meeting of the Major Economies Forum, where leaders of the world's major economies -- which also happen to be the biggest emitters -- announced they will create a voluntary coalition centered around building efficiency.
The effort is one of many "alternative mechanisms" that have been kicked around at the State Department as ways to encourage nations to make real reductions in emissions while avoiding the sticky questions of responsibility that weigh down the U.N. climate talks (ClimateWire, Feb. 25).
The initial focuse on buildings is likely to be patterned after the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, which focuses on agreements to reduce so-called short-lived climate pollutants like methane and hydrofluorocarbons. According to the State Department, the efforts will be "fleshed out further over the coming months" and will "serve as a complement" to the U.N. climate convention.
Critics argue that building efficiency is unlikely to capture the public imagination as a bold new way to fight climate change. But supporters argue that unlike issues wildly popular with environmental groups -- like eliminating subsidies for fossil fuels -- an agreement on building efficiency is actually politically feasible.