Horse Trading and Climate Change

AMSTERDAM – When the panda smiles, the world applauds. Or so it seemed after Chinese President Hu Jintao’s recent speech at the United Nations. Judging by the way much of the media reported his words, it seemed as if China had actually made an important announcement on cutting greenhouse-gas emissions.

It hadn’t. All President Hu really said was that China would now “endeavour” to curb its carbon emissions by a “notable” margin. But how does one measure “endeavour” or “notable”? As someone with close links to the Chinese administration told me when pressed: “What was said was actually pretty meaningless.”

Indeed, there were no specific targets and, as any China watcher knows, the “greening” of the government is old news. Official Chinese policy in recent years has been to make GDP growth greener. But not at the expense of growth itself – and China plans to grow pretty fast.

At least the panda smiled. Poor Barack Obama didn’t even have that to offer. He offered no pledge to cut emissions in the United States, and, with vote-sapping battles already underway over health-care reform, one wonders how much time and energy Obama will have for environmental imperatives.