This post originally appeared in The Atlantic.

Of Pigs and Mirrors – The breakdown of the US-China dialogue in Tianjin

Coming away from this past week of negotiations at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change meeting in Tianjin, the sense is certainly that time is not on our side. While delegates from more than 150 countries were charged the task of whittling down options on the table to prepare for heads of state and ministers in Cancun, the talks concluded with dishearteningly little progress, a widening divide between developed and developing countries, and resurfacing tensions between the U.S. and China on climate change.

From my observations in Copenhagen to most recently in Tianjin, the acrimony between the US and China appears to still rest on three of the most hotly-contested letters in the climate debate – M, R, and V, which refer to the measurement, reporting, and verification of mitigation actions and financial support. In Copenhagen, China agreed to international verification of actions receiving financing, technology transfer, or capacity building; while also consenting to “international consultation and analysis” (ICA) for its domestic actions, which include a pledge to reduce carbon intensity 40 to 45 percent by 2020 from 2005 levels. At a press conference early in the week, I heard the head of the Chinese delegation Vice Minister Xie Zhenhua say that China was trying to increase transparency and did not have any major problems with MRV – as long as national sovereignty was respected.

The differences in viewpoints between the US and China at the talks in Tianjin caused major rifts in the discussions and culminated with the Chinese lead negotiator Su Wei calling the US a “pig preening itself in a mirror.” In the classical Chinese idiom where Su derived the comparison, Zhubajie zhao jinzi, li wai bu shi ren – meaning “pig in mirror, not human inside or outside” – the half-man, half-pig character Zhubajie is portrayed as lazy, gluttonous, and idiotic. [my note: anyone who is familiar with China’s Journey to the West will know the Monkey King and Man-Pig characters] Needless to say, in Chinese culture, this less-than-desirable comparison is considered an undiplomatic slight.

Su’s comments in the corridors of the Tianjin Meijiang Convention Center reflect his obvious frustration with what he feels is hypocrisy on the part of the U.S. in the climate negotiations. During apress conference, Su criticized the United States for failing to meet its UNFCCC commitments, particularly in terms of pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to provide financial assistance to developing countries. He said it was unfair for the United States to criticize China and make them the scapegoat in the climate debates when the United States itself “isn’t doing anything,” Su said. His remarks were counter to a speech Todd Stern, Special Envoy for Climate Change in the United States, gave at the University of Michigan Law School in which he said that China was “spurning” commitments made in Copenhagen, acting as if the agreement “never happened.”

And there’s evidence that the Chinese are working to improve capacity as well as transparency of its measurement and reporting systems. Sun Cuihua, the Deputy General-Director of the Climate Change Coordination Office in China’s National Development and Reform Commission announced at a side event that China is currently working on a centralized database of GHG emissions, which would include emissions data from Chinese municipalities and provinces and would eventually become open for the public. Although no specific timeline was given for completion, this is a major announcement, considering the most recent publicly-available data for GHG emission levels of Chinese provinces dates back to 1994.

Despite these efforts, the US still pushed China on the MRV issue in Tianjin, which I think could have been a negotiating tactic on the part of the US to deflect attention away from the fact that the Washington still has been unable to pass national legislation on energy and climate change. What perhaps bothers the US most on the MRV issue is the fear that if China indeed backs away from the Copenhagen Accord in the negotiations, its promises of MRV and ICA go along with it. This fear was expressed by lead US negotiator and Deputy Special Envoy for Climate Change Jonathan Pershing. Discussion on measurement, reporting, and verification of GHG emissions even amongst non-government actors has also become particularly sensitive following the Tianjin talks, as I’ve heard from colleagues here in China that several US-China bilateral workshops planned to discuss MRV have been canceled.

So without the two largest climate behemoths talking constructively – and not bickering – what does this mean moving forward to Cancun? First, geographical differences aside, Cancun is not going to be any Copenhagen. The expectations are already much lower –BBC news is contemplating only sending one correspondent to cover the talks, as opposed to around 30 last year. Hopes for a legally-binding deal have long been off the table – I could even sense the difference in Pershing’s more relaxed demeanor in Tianjin compared to Copenhagen. Second, the inability of countries in Tianjin to make enough progress on the negotiation text means that some important issues identified in the Copenhagen Accord may not be discussed in Cancun. Bright points at Copenhagen, such discussion on credits from avoided deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+), were barely even touched at the talks at Tianjin, which do not bode well for hopes of a decision in Cancun.

There is an urgent feeling that Cancun is the last shot for all parties to come up with enough concrete action to maintain the credibility of the process moving forward into the next year. If countries are unsuccessful in agreeing upon enough concrete actions in Cancun, there are rumblings, particularly from the European Union, that some parties might jump ship and try bilateral talks or negotiations through the G-20 or Major Economies forum instead. Unfortunately, if multilateral negotiations do start to disperse centrifugally, the one bilateral relationship that stands to make the most difference on the global climate – the one between the US and China – could be damaged in the UNFCCC process.