One of this weeks big news items in international relations was the progress that China and the United States had made in their bilateral climate talks (gated but free registration available). While it is too early to say if the talks result in concrete action, this is the first time since forever that the two largest emitters are recognizing their common interest inĀ  cooperating to mitigate climate change.

What should we expect? It would be naive to believe that these talks break the gridlock of global climate negotiations. Regardless of what China and the United States discuss in the talks, the grim reality of American politics is that any legally binding climate treaty would have a tough time in the Senate. The domestic political structure of the United States makes federal climate policy, let alone treaty ratification, very hard in today’s polarized environment. Even if China accepted binding emissions targets — and that’s a big if — I would not expect Republicans to vote for, say, a national cap-and-trade policy. After all, Republicans are currently accusing the Obama administration for waging a “war on coal”.

More modest achievements are possible. Cooperation on low-carbon initiatives and renewable energy could contribute to decarbonization, facilitate technology transfer, and send a signal to the clean technology industry that there are new opportunities in the horizon. Even modest steps to this direction could encourage other countries to increase their offers in different negotiations, such as those among major emitters. While Obama’s hands are tied as long as the Congress remains polarized on climate, he has a proven track record of acting on climate through executive authority. The Chinese political constraints are less transparent, and I am not a specialist in this field, but Beijing certainly has strong incentives to deploy clean technologies to mitigate air pollution and reduce the country’s energy intensity and dependence on coal.

As long as we accept the constraints on global climate cooperation and expect only modest gains at the international level until a fundamental shift in the domestic politics of fossil fuels, the bilateral climate talks between China and the United States are welcome news. They’re not that surprising either. China’s increasing carbon dioxide emissions are changing Beijing’s position in the negotiations. While the average standard of living in China is still much lower than in industrialized countries, China’s status as the world’s largest emitter makes it difficult for the Chinese leadership to hide behind the developing country status much longer. On a good day, I would say that China’s increased willingness to negotiate is a sign of recognizing the need to for a new, more proactive strategy. The world’s two largest emitters are the most important countries in the negotiations by a wide margin, and much depends on their ability to cooperate.