Will China and the US Go Big on Climate Cooperation?


Credit: How Hwee Young / EPA

At the center of efforts to bring down greenhouse gases -- efforts that must involve the world's two highest-emitting countries -- aren't just issues of politics and security, but the curious conflicting desires of both of those countries. The US has said it cannot lower emissions unless China does so too (while also providing Americans with affordable products). For its part, China wants lower emissions (and more) from the US first (while it increasingly adopts American lifestyles). As Secretary of State Clinton heads to China with the beginning of a climate agenda in tow, many are wondering how the world's biggest environmental stalemate can become its biggest opportunity.Clinton will be arriving in Beijing this week with some serious thinking behind her. Late last month, reports by the Brookings Institution and the Asia Society called for new bilateral climate change cooperation. Especially promising is that the panel behind the Asia Society report was led by Obama energy honcho Steven Chu.

Post-Kyoto Dreams
Though many have called for it, few are optimistic about a broader, deeper set of mandatory targets for cutting greenhouse gases. China has scoffed at such suggestions, raising its relatively low per-capita emissions and pointing a finger at the West's carbon-intense path toward industrialization. American officials say that no climate change mitigation is possible without China's participation, and imposing carbon controls in the U.S. would give China a competitive economic advantage.

But both countries have begun to change their tunes. Clinton's State department will focus on climate change in its talks with China, likely more so than Hank Paulsen did during his multi-year Strategic Economic Dialogue with Chinese officials. And though short-term energy security (read: coal, oil) remains a top priority for the Communist Party, Chinese experts have begun to acknowledge that no per-capita arguments or finger pointing is going to stop climate change from ravaging the country's environment.

Now hopes seem higher than ever that both countries can agree to work on a set of climate-friendly initiatives related to electricity generation, manufacturing and energy efficiency.


Credit: Bloomberg
Hilary's Agenda
On Friday, Sec. of State Clinton paid a visit to the Asia Society to outline her Asian agenda ahead of her trip to China, and placed climate issues third in her list of priorities, after economic stability and security (including North Korea's nuclear capabilities).
Some believe that China on the rise is by definition an adversary. To the contrary, we believe the United States and China benefit from, and contribute to, each other¹s successes....
When we consider the gravest global threats confronting us - financial instability and economic dislocation, terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, food security and health emergencies, climate change and energy vulnerability, stateless criminal cartels and human exploitation - it is clear that these threats do not stop at borders or oceans. Pandemics threaten school children in Jakarta and Jacksonville. Global financial crises shrink bank accounts in Sapporo and San Francisco. The dangers posed by nuclear proliferation create worries in Guangzhou as well as Washington. And climate change affects the livelihoods of farmers in China's Hunan province and in America's Midwest. These dangers affect us all, and therefore we all must play a role in addressing them.

A promising but complicating aspect to the approach Clinton hopes to take is her interest in bypassing ministries and "engag[ing] civil society" directly "to strengthen the foundations needed to support good governance, free elections, and a free press, wider educational opportunities, stronger healthcare systems, religious tolerance, and human rights."

US Leads, China Follows
Both of the new reports on China-US climate cooperation -- by the Brookings Institution and the Asia Society -- place an emphasis on "clean energy," a priority against which it's hard to argue. They also indicate the importance of the US helping China develop mechanisms to measure and monitor the performance of energy policies, help that China could use if it is to make serious progress on emissions.

Both reports also assume that the US will take the first steps in the CO2 reduction dance. Specifically, the authors of both reports say that means a cap on carbon by the US, followed by a responsible response by China.

That would include "intensity targets" (limiting emissions per unit of GDP), renewable energy requirements, emissions limits in specific sectors; or "policies and measures" like closing inefficient plants or adopting strong building efficiency standards.

The Economic Question
One question lingering over any road map is how the US and China will manage to balance climate agreements with their economic priorities. Both countries' interests could go hand-in-hand, with green job creation and technology cooperation on either side of the Pacific.

Or the US, under Geitner's Treasury Department, and lobbied on all sides, could end up with a more protectionist stance, turning inward for green solutions rather than searching for common ground. Essentially, how will the US and China promote green jobs in their respective countries in a way that also allows cooperation? As China seeks more clean tech innovation on top of its manufacturing sector, and the US looks to continue its lead in technology and build up its manufacturing capacity, can both countries work together?

It seems possible for the two sides to complement each other, but this will have to do not only with political will and government stimulus, but also with a serious dialogue over technology transfer and intellectual property protection, as well as continuing reforms and policies in both countries that incentivize green behavior.

The 21st Century's First Serious Climate Treaty
Both countries have long been stuck in a mindset that pits economic development over environmental concerns. That's become a stale dichotomy, even in developing China, where pollution is slowing economic gains. In both countries, improvements in both sectors are mutually beneficial.

Let's hope that the emphasis on creating domestic jobs and addressing other issues don't distract but rather bolsters an effort to form the 21st century's first serious climate treaty.

See also Charlie McElwee's sharp analysis of the reports on US-China Climate Change Engagement at China Environmental Law.

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Will China and the US Go Big on Climate Cooperation?
At the center of efforts to bring down greenhouse gases -- efforts that must involve the world's two highest-emitting countries -- aren't just issues of politics and security, but the curious conflicting desires of both of

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