China's Kinda-Sorta-Oughta Plan to Fight Climate Change

Is Beijing suddenly getting on board in the fight against global warming?

Just one day after Barack Obama's administration unveiled its tough new climate change rules, China seemingly followed suit, hinting Tuesday that it would put an absolute cap on greenhouse gas emissions in its next five-year plan, which begins in 2016.

But it's not quite so cut and dried: The advisor whose words at a Beijing conference sparked the story, He Jiankun, said he and other experts merely urged the Chinese government to cap emissions, the Financial Times noted.

"This is our experts' advice and suggestion," he told the Financial Times. "The government has not decided on this policy yet. We hope to implement this in the 13th five-year plan, but the plan has not been fixed yet."

Not to be overlooked, however, is the real effort China is making to tackle pollution, both the kind that is only too visible -- such as the smog that regularly blankets Chinese cities -- and the kind that isn't, such as greenhouse gases.

Pollution has become an existential challenge for Chinese leaders. Protests against the country's terrible environmental record, whether dirty air, dirty water, dirty factories, or dead pigs, leave Beijing with uncomfortable flashbacks to the Tiananmen Square protests, which were 25 years ago this Wednesday, June 4.

That explains, in part, China's world-leading investments in renewable energy such as wind and solar power. The Chinese also have an ambitious schedule for nuclear energy deployment, and some individual provinces have banned coal plants. Although China uses as much coal as the rest of the world combined, Chinese energy experts increasingly say the end is nigh -- or rather, that China's coal consumption will peak sooner than previously predicted. At the height of China's economic boom, it was building roughly one coal-fired power plant every week.

Simultaneously, China is trying to move away from energy-intensive heavy manufacturing and embrace a more service-oriented economy, which will require less energy -- and produce fewer emissions -- for each dollar of output. All that promises to have big implications for next year's global climate change summit and for domestic U.S. politics.

"China cannot continue its current trends, either in terms of pollution or in terms of energy supply," said Wang Tao, an energy and climate expert at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy. "The government is just trying to make this transition as smooth and soft as possible."

Climate watchers still digesting the Obama administration's biggest step toward tackling greenhouse gas emissions -- a plan to cut emissions from the power sector 30 percent by 2030 -- got pie-eyed when news broke that China apparently would cap emissions too. Part of their enthusiasm came from the fact that the Chinese move, if fully carried out, could re-energize lagging efforts to create a global carbon-trading system.

China is already the world's second-largest carbon-trading market, with seven local pilot programs. It wants to turn those regional, sometimes troubled, efforts into a national emissions-trading scheme similar to Europe's and the one nixed by the U.S. Congress in 2010. However, Chinese officials have been racking their brains on how to do so.

One problem facing Chinese climate programs: They're meant to make dirty energy more expensive and cleaner alternatives more attractive. But China's stranglehold on domestic energy prices means the programs don't work as well as they could.

If China does move toward a cap on carbon emissions, that could make it easier for international climate negotiators to reach some sort of agreement at next year's U.N. climate summit in Paris. Energy analysts say that the Obama administration's newly announced measures, which target the biggest single source of greenhouse gas emissions, would likely open the door to more action from other big emitters, including China.

And even if formal steps by the Chinese government to cap emissions are years away from fruition, it will also make it harder for opponents of the president's climate push to fight his environmental initiatives. Many Republicans have criticized the administration's climate plans, especially the new rules to clean up the power sector, because in the absence of any similar action from big emitters such as China, they worry the new rules will poleax the American economy and provide few global environmental benefits.

Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), a prominent voice on the Senate environment committee, criticized the new power plant rules Monday precisely because they aren't binding on countries such as India and China. Likewise, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a prospective 2016 presidential candidate, has derided U.S. efforts to fight climate change on the grounds that China will continue its environmentally damaging growth path regardless of unilateral U.S. actions.

The apparent trial balloon floated Tuesday could change that conversation, said Ailun Yang, a China climate researcher at the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank.

"If this happens, it would show that there is shared concern among the world's biggest emitters that climate change should be taken more seriously. In general, the whole rhetoric around climate action has changed and is evolving."

That's a big if, however. As Tuesday wore on, the difference between official Chinese government policy and what Chinese government advisors would like to see happen became clearer.

Still, the mere internal suggestion that China should embrace firm climate targets reflects a fundamental shift, Yang said.

"Right now, it's both technically possible and politically acceptable for China to be talking about an absolute cap [on emissions]; and that's a very important step forward," she said. He Jiankun-- chairman of China's Advisory Committee on Climate Change -- got an earful about the new Environmental Protection Agency rules during a visit to Washington in May.

What was especially intriguing about his comments at the conference in Beijing, aside from the timing, is that an absolute cap on pollution would be something of a departure for China.

Beijing's formal environmental goals are designed to make the economy relatively cleaner but allow overall greenhouse gas emissions to keep rising as the economy keeps growing. The latest official targets, for instance, are meant to cut carbon emissions per unit of GDP by 2015, rather than cutting carbon emissions outright. China is struggling to meet even those lower targets. Meeting these potentially more ambitious ones will be even harder.

Photo by Stringer - AFP - Getty


The Shifting Sands of Obama’s Bergdahl Defense

If America's newly free POW really was a deserter, the White House is in deep trouble.

On Sunday, National Security Advisor Susan Rice said former American prisoner of war Bowe Bergdahl served with "honor and distinction" before he was captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Two days later, the secretary of the Army said the branch will investigate whether Bergdahl deserted his fellow soldiers -- an allegation that if true would transform the public perception of the POW and drastically complicate the White House's attempts to defend its prisoner exchange, which involved the release of five Taliban operatives from Guantanamo Bay.

On Tuesday, a fresh wave of lawmakers, including a top Senate Democrat, criticized the Obama administration's handling of Bergdahl's release. Complaints centered on four basic issues. Some critics oppose the very idea of trading five Guantanamo detainees for a U.S. soldier given the age-old mantra that the United States does not negotiate with terrorists (though historically, it sometimes has). Others say the administration broke the law by failing to comply with legislation requiring the president give 30-days notice to Congress before moving any prisoners out of Guantanamo Bay. Still others believe that given Bergdahl's potential status as a "deserter," the administration gave up too much in releasing five hardened Taliban operatives in exchange for his release. Lastly, some members of Congress believe the White House should've never championed Bergdahl as a hero given the unknown circumstances of his abduction.

For its part, the White House has rebuttals for each charge. But its emphasis has evolved over the last three days.  At the outset, the administration argued that Bergdahl's "safety and health were in jeopardy," justifying a hasty swap without the required congressional notification. Citing privacy concerns, the administration would not provide details about Bergdahl's condition. On Tuesday, the White House defended its unilateral actions on constitutional grounds. "Delaying the transfer in order to provide the 30-day notice would interfere with the executive's performance of two related functions that the Constitution assigns to the President," said White House spokesperson Caitlin Hayden. "Protecting the lives of Americans abroad and protecting U.S. soldiers."

Meanwhile, the country's understanding of Bergdahl and his service to the country has changed dramatically. On Saturday, the White House hosted a Rose Garden event to celebrate Berdahl's release, which President Obama attended. On Sunday, Susan Rice told ABC that Bergdahl served the U.S. "with honor and distinction." His fellow soldiers, however, said he deliberately left base before his abduction and often complained bitterly about the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. They also noted that some U.S. soldiers were killed in the hunt for Bergdahl. Following those mounting criticisms, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested that the Army may pursue a desertion investigation into Bergdahl, which Army Secretary John McHugh confirmed on Tuesday. "As Chairman Dempsey indicated, the Army will ... review this in a comprehensive, coordinated effort that will include speaking with Sgt. Bergdahl to better learn from him the circumstances of his disappearance and captivity," said McHugh.

Rice's remarks championing Bergdahl effectively boxed the White House in and created daylight between it and the Pentagon as military officials responded to tough questions about Bergdahl's past.

The dramatic speed in which Bergdahl went from hero to something more complicated led to criticisms of the White House. "Knowing the background of this soldier to somehow give them this type of hero status, what does that do the mothers and fathers of those other soldiers who were killed in Afghanistan, especially those who were out trying to find [Bergdahl]?" Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) said on CNN on Tuesday. "And to have Susan Rice say he conducted himself with honor and distinction, it makes you wonder about all of the things the president is saying."

Later in the broadcast, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney defended Rice's remarks, saying she was commenting on his service in general, not on allegations about his disappearance. "Sgt. Bergdahl put on the uniform of the United States voluntarily and went to war for the United States voluntarily," Carney said. "That takes honor and is a mark of distinction."

But the issue over how the administration portrayed Bergdahl is just one among many on the minds of Congress members. Many are still furious over being left in the dark about the prisoner exchange itself. "It's very disappointing that there was not a level of trust sufficient to justify alerting us," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) told reporters at the Capitol on Tuesday. Other lawmakers pledged to grill the administration on this topic during newly-scheduled hearings at the House and Senate Armed Services Committees.

"In executing this transfer, the President ... clearly violated laws which require him to notify Congress thirty days before any transfer of terrorists from Guantanamo Bay and to explain how the threat posed by such terrorists has been substantially mitigated," said Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in a joint statement.

A spokesperson for Inhofe said the senator is also upset that the administration negotiated with the Taliban for Bergdahl's release. "The senator is very concerned that the president has set a new precedent of negotiating with terrorists and releasing some of the most senior Taliban members when we still have troops in harms way," said the spokesperson. "This will be a concern he would like addressed in any briefing or hearing on the prisoner exchange."

Democrats, for the most part, are defending the president. In a statement, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin of Michigan said the administration's level of consultation was adequate given the circumstances.

"We received a detailed classified notification from the Secretary of Defense that satisfies the many substantive certification requirements of the National Defense Authorization Act," said Levin. "The president put Congress on notice on Dec. 23, 2013, that he intended to exercise his powers as commander in chief, if necessary, ‘to act swiftly in conducting negotiations with foreign countries regarding the circumstances of detainee transfers.' ... Given that notice, members of Congress should not be surprised that he acted as he did in the circumstances that existed."

But Inhofe's spokesperson noted that the NDAA requires a detailed statement on the basis of the transfer and why the transfer is in the national security interests of the U.S., which was not met by the administration.

While the investigation into Bergdahl's kidnapping will not likely be complete anytime soon, expect the issue over congressional notification to play out heatedly over the next few weeks.