A chance for Sino-US partnership

Joint projects on low-carbon cities can help the United States and China face the climate crisis and the economic downturn, write Du Tingting and CS Kiang. 

[Produced in association with Rutgers Climate and Social Policy Initiative]

As humanity confronts the climate crisis and the financial crisis, we can grasp a new opportunity to develop both our economies and new energy sources. Here, we argue that cooperation between the United States and China on low-carbon cities may offer this chance.

The transition to new energy sources and a low-carbon economy could help slow climate change – but negotiations between the industrialised world and developing nations, such as China, mostly remain limited to technology transfer and financial support. Without a going beyond these old frameworks, the Copenhagen climate-change conference will struggle to provide a solution.

New energy sources and the low-carbon economy can play to the strengths of China and the United States. China’s knowledge economy is in its early stages, but there is a huge potential to develop new energy technology and to “leapfrog” in terms of the development of the low-carbon economy. There is experience in developing the knowledge economy in the service-orientated United States; there is also more knowledge about the rapid deployment of new technology. Add in both countries' massive stimulus packages, and Sino-US cooperation could be the way to rapidly develop new energy technology and products, with the vast American market helping rapid adoption and reducing costs. It would also help to create “green jobs” in the United States.

Low-carbon cooperation between the two parties would not only help establish the knowledge economy, improve IP protection regimes and increase transparency, but also it could help to set global standards on emissions reductions. There is currently no single global standard for emissions – different nations propose reduction targets, but the measurement of those reductions has not been adequately explored. Standards established by the United States and China in the course of cooperation could be used as an international standard by other nations.

Preparations for demonstration projects on low-carbon cities partnerships in special zones of selected US and Chinese cities are already underway. These plans will be officially unveiled at the China-US Clean Energy Partnership Strategy Forum, to be held at the China Institute of Strategy and Management from October 21 to 23, 2009. On October 26 and 27, at the UN Global Compact’s corporate training event in New York, the project will explain the business opportunities it offers, and preparations will be made for the first round of mayoral training.

These low-carbon cities partnerships will not be created on a city-to-city basis, rather there will be an alliance of cities – mostly of small or medium size. Projects will start with capacity building training for mayors to bring them up to date on the latest thinking about low-carbon cities. As soon as a city shows an interest in joining up, the project will arrange training for executive officials and experts, addressing the different needs and characteristics of each city and working with the locality to produce suitable low-carbon action plans and assist in their implementation, realising measurable energy savings and emissions reductions. A report on the achievements of the first batch of demonstration projects will be produced before the 2012 climate-change negotiations.

This is an entirely bottom-up project: it has been designed so that local governments can take the lead – setting up demonstration projects in designated areas, with businesses undertaking sustainable commercial projects. Therefore we hope to work with local governments, businesses and universities – with central government support – to establish projects and make real emission reductions.

Existing low-carbon city projects all claim some successes, but the complexity of large cities confounds attempts to measure emission reductions. This proposed project will focus on designated areas and small to medium-sized cities so that emissions reductions can be more effectively measured and standards set. Demonstration zones will form centres of low-carbon innovation, which will attract personnel, funding and technology, creating a knowledge-based form of economic growth. The project will lead to more rapid adoption of low-carbon and new energy products worldwide. One of the routes to low-carbon city-building and economic recovery will be solar power. This is the new energy source with the greatest potential. However, both monocrystalline and polycrystalline silicon solar power remain expensive, and the production of raw materials can cause serious environmental pollution.

At the same time, competition between solar energy firms is concentrated in upstream markets, and state economic assistance is limited to solar electricity generation and integration into buildings, ignoring the importance of developing end-user products. The demonstration of end-user products would bring sustainable economic benefits for downstream firms. Supporting commercial applications of solar power, particular the use of thin solar membranes in road lighting, bicycles, wheelchairs, waterwheels and pumps, would reduce the costs of upstream development and inject new vitality into the sector.

Long-term cooperation between the US and China on low-carbon cities would not only help emissions reductions in the two countries, which account for 40% of all global carbon dioxide production, it would also send a strong signal to the world and set an example for others to follow. The partnership would make the development of low-carbon cities an effective means of economic growth in the post-Kyoto era, thus reducing negative attitudes towards climate negotiations and providing lessons for future negotiations.

Du Tingting works for Peking University Environmental Fund.

CS Kiang is chair of the Peking University Environmental Fund. He helped to write A Roadmap of US-China Collaboration on Energy and Climate Change. Kiang has presented his ideas on low-carbon city partnerships at international events, including the Manchester Climate Change Task Force Workshop, the Global Forum 2009, the Williamsburg Conference in Japan, and the Energy Forum for Asia.

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