By Lucia Green-Weiskel

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change held an intersessional meeting in the northern Chinese city of Tianjin last week. (Note: Although I am listed as both attending and hosting an event in Tianjin, I did not attend the conference (I had class) and wrote this based on other people’s reporting and the UNFCCC webcasts available here. I will be in Cancun in December for COP16, though).

For those of you who are unfamiliar, the UNFCCC climate change meetings or COPs are an ongoing series gatherings in which world leaders or their representatives come together in the framework of the United Nations to try to hash out a global agreement to fight climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The last such meeting was the COP15 held in Copenhagen in December of 2009, after which many people walked away scratching their heads at the ten day conference’s grand achievement: a three-page (1,400 word), non-legally binding “Copenhagen Accord” which includes no course of action, no reduction targets and was not signed but “taken note of” by members of the COP15. Most called it a failure. Some went farther and called it a “suicide pact.”

But the story most people remember from Copenhagen was the, at times, dramatic breakdown in relations between the US and Chinese delegations. At one point Chinese vice foreign minister, He Yafei, said of US chief negotiator, Todd Stern: “I don’t want to say that the gentleman is ignorant,” but he either “lacks common sense” or is “extremely irresponsible.”

In Tianjin the vitriol and gridlock between the world’s largest emitters continued. Chinese chief negotiator Su Wei accused Stern of misunderstanding the meaning of the Copenhagen Accord and rejected accusations that China is acting in a delinquent fashion. In fact, Su said, the Americans are the ones who are “doing nothing” on climate change. The Americans, he continued, issued the “first blow” to the Copenhagen Accord and is like a zhubajie zhao jinzi, li wai bu shi ren or 猪八戒照镜子,里外不是人– roughly: a pig preening itself in a mirror who is not the same person inside and out. It doesn’t quite translate to English, but let’s just say this is not a nice thing to say and implies both gluttony and hypocrisy.

So what should we make of all this? (Let’s hope Todd Stern has a supportive family that can help him restore his sense of self worth after all this abuse.) Maybe the US should try to understand the reasons for China’s concern, take a leadership role and chart the moral high ground, and meet the Chinese half way.

What do I mean by this? As I reported from Copenhagen last year, the main sticking point between the US and China is this rather technical issue of MRV – the methodologies and monitoring processes for Measuring, Reporting and Verification of emission reductions. The US says it will not accept any Chinese reductions unless they are monitored and verified by qualified international inspectors. China resists inspection and instead wants to implement MRV on its own terms using domestic institutions. The US continues to focus the blame on China and frequently criticizes China for not implementing MRV.

But in the last year, as US rhetoric on this issue remained steady, China made huge progress on emissions cutting while the US actually slipped backwards. Five provinces and eight cities in China were designated by the government as Low Carbon Pilot Zones, which include extensive MRV projects. The city of Tianjin is itself a poster child of Chinese progress: it houses China’s first carbon exchange and some of the most advanced carbon capture and sequestration projects. (Most visitors to the conference arrived by the Beijing-Tianjin bullet train, part of the 13,000 kilometers of rail lines planned by 2012, which can go over 200 miles per hour.)

In the US, climate legislation to create a cap and trade program has been declared dead and we have no national program for mandatory MRV.

Meanwhile,  the US and China emit about 19% and 22% of the world’s emissions respectively, but the average US citizen emits five times more emissions than the average Chinese.  And almost one-quarter of China’s emissions are directly sourced to products that are made for export and consumed in America or Europe. It is hard not to see that the US is implicated the most in the climate problem.

Does that add up to grounds for US leadership on climate change?  Both countries should be taking bolder moved, but, at least for now, the US might want to tend to its own house before it criticizes its host. Next stop for Stern and Su will be Cancun in November.