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Is The U.S.-China Dispute Overblown?

The United States and China appear to be at an impasse in climate discussions. At least, that's what The New York Times suggested today, reporting that the two countries are bickering over how, exactly, to monitor and verify China's new goal of reducing "carbon intensity" 40 percent by 2020. The United States wants some sort of international scrutiny—indeed, two weeks ago, a group of nine Senate Democrats wrote a letter to Obama saying they won't support a climate bill without it. China, meanwhile, insists it can monitor itself.

So how big a deal is this dispute? I asked William Chandler, a China expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, for his take. Chandler explained that China is wary of having observers on the ground—they see it as a violation of their sovereignty. But, he added, the monitoring issue is also slightly overblown. "This is not like verifying arms-control agreements, where you have to see if someone is hiding something. You do need to have honest and vetted data about China's GDP and energy consumption. But at the aggregate level, those things are very hard to hide over a number of years—you can look at GDP growth, the number of cars, fuel economy, how much the coal industry is consuming..." Indeed, for the last two decades, outside analysts have been doing a fairly good job at tracking energy trends in China.

Granted, there's room for improvement. Chandler notes that, for quite some time, the central government in Beijing has been imposing energy and efficiency goals, but can't always verify that the provinces are meeting them. "The provinces literally have contracts with the central government to meet targets for reducing energy use, and so they sometimes tend to misstate" growth and energy data, he says. "But one positive trend of late is that the central government has been sending teams of specialists to review progress in the provinces. Those data are not, unfortunately, always made available to the international community, but there is an effort to do verification."

Is that going to be enough to break the impasse? Chandler argues that there's likely a technical solution available—a way to give the United States confidence that China's progress on carbon intensity is real, but without China feeling like it's compromised too much. But that's not likely to emerge in high-profile global discussions, where everyone's feeling pressure not to back down. As it turns out, the bigger uncertainty here probably involves Congress. "I do think this is a technical issue that can be resolved," Chandler adds. "But the big question is whether it'll be resolved in a way the Senate will be comfortable with—or whether senators want to use this issue as an excuse not to act."