China and the US: moving forward on climate (part one)

The environment is becoming part of the core agenda in both countries, and international cooperation is growing. But, writes Zhang Haibin, if the two nations cannot take genuine action, global efforts may yet be wasted.

Cooperation on climate change between China and the United States is facing both challenges and opportunities. In both nations, climate change is becoming more prominent on the political agenda and there is a greater desire for cooperation. Common understanding is now being reached in areas where previously there was only disagreement.


In the past, environmental protection occupied, at best, the margins of China’s political agenda – and climate change occupied only the margins of the environmental agenda. The importance accorded to different environmental issues is reflected in the environmental targets set by the government. Targets set in the 9th and 10th Five-Year Plans and State Council decisions on strengthening environmental protectionall failed to identify climate change as part of the core environmental agenda.


But in October 2007’s report from the 17th Party Congress, president Hu Jintao identified managing environmental resources as the main challenge to China’s development and put forward the concept of building an “ecological civilisation” – indicating a major increase in importance for environmental protection. At about the same time, the climate-change issue received further government attention. In June 2007, a National Climate Change Programme (CNCCP) [pdf] was released, comprehensively detailing China’s stance and policy on climate change. That same month, a National Leading Group to Address Climate Change, headed by premier Wen Jiabao, was founded on the basis of the existing National Coordination Committee on Climate Change (NCCCC). The 11th Five-Year Plan calls for a compulsory 20% reduction in energy consumption per unit of gross domestic product (GDP) and a 10% reduction in emissions of major pollutants.


To ensure completion of this mission, the government published a notice on a programme of work to reduce power usage and emissions. It established a responsibility system and a veto mechanism that will see the environmental targets become part of development evaluation in different areas, along with the performance of government officials.                          


And on the other side of the Pacific, too, climate-change politics is in a state of flux. Calls for the United States government to change its negative stance on climate change and to take stronger measures to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions are increasing, while the American public is talking more about climate-change issues. In the 2006 mid-term elections, the Democrats took control of both houses of the US Congress — the Senate and the House of Representatives – and the environment is increasingly becoming a major topic of legislative proposals and debate.


President George W Bush’s administration – with one more year in office — also appears to be softening its position. Most notable is the shift from the fierce scepticism and unilateralism of the early years of the administration to a basic acceptance of the reality of climate change and a return to the United Nations framework today. Meanwhile, some state government administrations are racing ahead of the federal government in Washington. Over a dozen states, led by California, are implementing their own plans to reduce emissions. California’s state legislature passed a Global Warming Solutions Act in 2006, which sets a greenhouse-gas emissions reduction target of 25% for 2020 – bringing emissions down to 1990 levels.


The US military also is becoming worried by climate change. In February 2004, the Department of Defense published a report, An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security. Prepared by the Global Business Network (GBN) consultancy, the report considered the possibility that abrupt changes in climate could lead to violence and separatism, seriously impacting on regional political stability. The report went on to discuss plausible climate and conflict scenarios that could see an unprepared world facing greater poverty; food, water and energy shortages; and a rising toll of refugees – all leading to warfare over diminishing resources.


Perhaps the biggest change the US has seen is an increased public concern about climate change. On Earth Day 2007, there were 1,400 public events across the country calling for more positive action from the US government. A series of public-opinion surveys carried out by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) found that in 2005 the US public did not know much about climate change and did not give the issue priority – but by 2006 climate change was considered to be the most pressing issue. Media coverage of climate change in 2006 also reached unprecedented levels. Former vice president Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth earned praise from the US and world news media, won the best-documentary honour at the 2007 Academy Awards and had a huge impact in the west.


Meanwhile, changes also have been seen in the attitudes of the main opponents of measures to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions – business and unions. Many of these groups are now showing understanding and support for compulsory emissions targets. A classic example is the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), a collection of mainly US businesses that formerly was one of the major interest groups opposing any significant reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions. “Deactivated” in 2002, it once had a major influence over US climate-change policy.


The increasing importance of climate change on the domestic political agenda has prompted China to cooperate internationally, as with the National Climate Change Programme. The changes on the US political scene also have created – to a certain extent — a desire to work with China. The US government made energy and the environment one of the six key fields for cooperation during the China-US Strategic Economic Dialogue, launched in 2006. At a National Committee on US-China Relations dinner in October 2007, deputy US secretary of state John D. Negroponte called climate change one of five global challenges that the US and China must face together.

Interest in China-US cooperation on climate change also is increasing in Congress and the Senate – the focus of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC) on China’s energy and environmental sectors is a good example of this. In 2003, when the commission held a hearing on China’s energy demands, it was titled “China’s Energy Needs and Strategies.” In 2007 this had become “China’s Energy Consumption and Opportunities for U.S.-China Cooperation to Address the Effects of China’s Energy Use.” In American academia, more and more scholars are stressing the importance of China-US cooperation on preventing climate change, as evidenced by the successful holding of the first China-US Climate Change Forum at the University of California, Berkeley, in May 2006.  


With this need to work together, China and the US have increased common understanding on international climate-change cooperation. One of the reasons the US gave in 2001 for pulling out of the Kyoto Protocol to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was the failure of developing countries such as India and China to commit to large-scale emissions reductions. The US withdrawal threw a major China-US disagreement into sharp relief. Since then, there have been subtle shifts and an increase in common understanding. On some crucial issues, the two nations have eliminated their differences and reached agreement. Such issues include whether or not the world is warming, whether slowing global warming should take place within a framework of sustainable development; whether climate-change measures should include adaptation; and whether the UNFCCC should continue to be given priority.   


Currently, the world is agreed that global warming is a fact, and widespread international cooperation is under way. China and the US must grasp this opportunity to work together on dealing with climate change, to reach agreement on root issues and to cooperate positively. If these two great nations cannot take genuine action, then global efforts to combat climate change may yet be wasted.


Dr. Haibin Zhang is an associate professor at Peking University’s School of International Studies. His major research areas are global environmental politics and international organisations.