Three little letters could spell big trouble for global climate change negotiations even after China, the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, announced its first firm goals to curb emissions. MRV, the shorthand of climate treaty negotiators for "measurable, reportable and verifiable", sums up environmentalists' concerns now that China has set an emissions target. How will the world know if it is telling the truth about any emissions reductions?
China on Thursday stressed that its goal of reducing by 2020 its "carbon intensity" by between 40 per cent and 45 per cent from 2005 levels - reducing the amount of carbon dioxide released to generate each yuan of economic activity - is a domestic policy, not to be picked over by foreigners as part of any new international pact. Negotiators hope to agree on the basics of just such a pact when they meet in Copenhagen from December 7.
Trust us, was the message of Xie Zhenhua, the Chinese climate policy envoy who explained the policy. "Although this is a domestic voluntary action, it is binding," said Mr Xie. "As we've made this commitment, well, Chinese people stick to their word." But garnering enough international trust to fix a new, legally binding climate treaty will not be easy when there is so much wider western unease about Chinese intentions on trade, security and the environment.
Another worry is the quality of data in a country that has ingrained habits of secrecy, with Chinese officials seen as tempted to bend statistics that can decide chances of promotion and demotion. "I think that, unfortunately, this is one of those cultural clashes that could be difficult," says Charles McElwee, an environmental and energy lawyer with Squire Sanders in Shanghai who follows China's climate change policies.
"China has this deep-seated desire not to have other countries poking around into what it considers its internal affairs - westerners tend to think, 'If this is your commitment, then put your money where your mouth is'." To have a climate bill passed into law, the US President Barack Obama must persuade many in the US Senate that China is doing enough to curb emissions and it is being held accountable, Mr McElwee adds.
China has long rejected calls to open other areas to outside monitoring, such as legal rights and disease outbreaks. So while climate policy experts welcome China's goal as a boost for the Copenhagen talks, they say governments face tough talks over how that goal will be checked, and by whom. "It certainly is a potential deal breaker on the mitigation element of the negotiations," says Julian Wong, an expert on Chinese climate policy at the Centre for American Progress, a think tank in Washington. Mitigation refers to actions to eradicate or reduce the threat of global warming.
"The best way to do that is for the rest of the world to help China with important capacity building initiatives in greenhouse gas reporting and monitoring," Mr Wong says. Beijing's reluctance to turn its domestic vow into a treaty obligation also reflects its own fears that developed nations will not live up to any promises to give developing ones more emissions-cutting technology and money to cope with global warming, says Zou Ji, an expert on the issue at Renmin University in Beijing.
But without that help, China will find it difficult to cut carbon intensity by 40 per cent within a decade, he says. "The further we go in reducing carbon intensity, the harder it will be," says Mr Zou, who had been until recently a member of China's negotiating team for the UN climate talks. "This path is not a level plane, it gets steeper and steeper." Mr Zou says he also worries that China's energy efficiency numbers reflected "padding" by officials, and carbon efficiency data can also be distorted by local governments and businesses.
"We don't want games with numbers on pieces of paper," he says. "We want to see real reductions". At talks leading up to Copenhagen, negotiators have wrangled over how, and how closely, to link their respective efforts to combat global warming. At the core of the dispute are the worries of developing nations that developed ones are trying to impose binding emissions goals by stealth, which could hinder growth.
Industrialised powers say if they are making costly adjustments to their economies, big developing nations should open their emissions books to outside scrutiny, under a deal made two years ago. But developing countries say that commitment to accept "measurement, reporting and verification" refers only to checking emissions steps made with technology or cash from rich nations. * Reuters