Are China and the US finally getting serious about climate change?

Two climate experts give their recommendations to the new US-China climate change working group

The new Joint US-China Statement on Climate Change, signed during secretary of state John Kerry’s recent trip to China, is symbolic in recognising that forceful cooperation and intensified action by the two largest emitters of greenhouse gas is crucial to containing climate change. It raises the bar by aiming to “set the kind of powerful example that can inspire the world”.

However, this important new signal will only be meaningful if it delivers specific actions that match the strong rhetoric.

After all, this isn’t the first time that these two major countries have committed to working together to address climate change. Just before the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, the two countries agreed to “strengthen and coordinate our respective efforts”. Since then, the US and China have been partnering on a series of clean energy initiatives, though funding and high-level support have dwindled.

Sceptics could, quite rightly, view this new statement as little more than a repeat of the previous one, which was supposed to be an important breakthrough. But it still merits close attention, since real climate progress, including a strong international climate agreement, will only occur if key countries work to turn their climate commitments into specific actions at home.

The joint statement creates a new US-China Climate Change Working Group that will “begin immediately to determine and finalise ways in which the two powers can advance cooperation on technology, research, conservation and alternative and renewable energy” to foster green and low-carbon economic growth. 

As a start, here are our top recommendations for concrete actions the new US-China Climate Change Working Group can promote: 

I. Curb carbon emissions from the power sector and other major emitters

Unconstrained coal use in the power sector and other large industries is a major source of climate and air pollution in China and the US, so tackling this pollution in both countries has to be a key priority. China’s power sector accounts for about 50% of its coal consumption and emissions, with heavy industries such as iron and steel, cement and coal chemicals also constituting a large proportion of its coal consumption and pollution.

In the US, even though the power sector has reduced its consumption of coal in the last two years, emissions from existing coal-fired power plants are still the largest source of US carbon pollution. For both countries, improving efficiency and expanding renewables is essential to curbing emissions.

China has improved the efficiency of coal-burning greatly since 2005 by replacing inefficient power plants with newer, more efficient facilities. Its Top 10,000 Enterprises Program has also boosted energy efficiency, as have provincial demand-side management schemes and other targeted industrial efficiency projects. It has also greatly expanded its use of wind power, and is set for similar growth in solar PV resources in the next five years, for both utility and distributed generation.

The US also has significant success stories in decarbonising the power sector and industry, such as California’s demand-side management programmes, the California Solar Initiative and the progress California is making to reach its target of obtaining 33% of its energy from renewables by 2020. New York state has also recently expanded its NY-Sun initiative, a public-private project that’s providing US$800 million for solar PV projects through 2015 and will provide US$150 million in funding over the next 10 years.

The US-China Climate Change Working Group can help strengthen cooperation on market mechanisms such as cap-and-trade to further incentivise clean-energy investment. China has initiated carbon trading pilot platforms in five cities and two provinces, which will begin trading later this year and are meant to be a precursor to establishing a national carbon trading programme during the 13th Five Year Plan (2016-20).

In the US, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and California’s cap-and-trade programme both provide valuable experiences, including (1) developing accurate and comprehensive emissions inventories, which will be helpful for China in developing either carbon trading or carbon tax regimes; and (2) designing emission trading systems so they achieve the optimal emissions reductions, especially through re-investment of programme revenues into efficiency and renewables projects.

The Working Group can also explore other innovative mechanisms for reducing CO2 emissions from power generation. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has developed a groundbreaking proposal to establish carbon pollution standards for existing power plants. Our proposal accounts for differences among states, charts a path to affordable and effective emissions reductions by tapping into the ingenuity of local governments and the private sector to achieve emissions reductions through efficiency and renewables; and provides multiple compliance options, including cleaning up existing power plants, shifting power generation to plants with lower emissions or none at all, and improving the efficiency of electricity use.

The Working Group should also consider expanding the role that public-private partnerships, subnational cooperation and NGOs play in strengthening US-China cooperation on climate change. Such mechanisms can serve as important bridges for exchange on innovative policies, best practices and financing mechanisms.

For example, China has been supporting combined heat and power – integrated and efficient production of heat and electricity – for several years, an area that is also being actively promoted in the US. Similarly, US developers have developed innovative third-party financing mechanisms for distributed solar PV, while China is now actively seeking ways to scale up its domestic distributed PV market.

II. Take urgent action on HFCs and Black Carbon

The Working Group should focus on powerful greenhouse gases such as Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and black carbon, which have a potent near-term impact on the climate system. Joint action on these could be done quickly, with huge co-benefits for both sides and little need for lengthy follow-on work since the solutions are well known in both countries.

The US and China should agree to phase-out HFCs under the Montreal Protocol. HFCs are “super” greenhouse gases used primarily as coolants in room and vehicle air conditioners. Transitioning to safer chemicals that trap much less heat could save an amazing amount of climate-changing pollution – equal to 88 billion metric tonnes of CO2 worldwide before 2050, or 12 times the current annual carbon pollution of the US.

Both the US and China are major consumers and producers of HFCs, so they play an important leadership role here. More than 110 countries have already signed up to efforts to tackle HFC use under the Montreal Protocol, but the proposed phase-down is yet to be implemented due to the resistance of China and India.

The US has begun to ease out HFCs in new cars and is considering proposals for broader action. We have found business reasons for India to phase-down HFCs and similar dynamics are at play in China, where some companies are already developing joint ventures, implementing less damaging coolants and eyeing the evolving market. The US and China could help to unlock the stalemate and agree to take action on HFCs at this year’s Montreal Protocol meeting.

The Working Group should also focus on action to reduce black carbon from high-sulphur diesel fuels and vehicles. Black carbon is a much more powerful contributor to climate change than previously thought. In addition, diesel emissions are particularly toxic, contributing to increased asthma emergencies, cancers, heart attacks and premature deaths.

Fortunately, diesel pollution is a solvable problem. Lower-sulphur fuels, combined with emission-control technologies that are only feasible with low-sulphur fuels, mean vehicles, engines and ships that can be more than 90% cleaner than the models they replace. China recently set a timetable for adopting stricter diesel and gasoline fuel standards, so implementing those standards will be a priority. The US is in the final stages of implementing low-sulphur fuel and vehicle standards.

Both countries should also work together to reduce high-sulphur diesel emissions from ships burning bunker fuel, the world’s dirtiest transportation fuel.  Unlike the US, where ship fuel will soon be capped at 1,000 parts-per-million (ppm), sulphur levels in fuels burned at ports in China and other developing countries are much, much higher than in those regions. The average container ship burns bunker fuel that averages 26,000 ppm. This too is a solvable problem that will yield major climate and air pollution benefits. 

With the nearby Chinese ports of Shenzhen and Guangdong, the Hong Kong government is exploring the feasibility of proposing to the International Maritime Organization the establishment of a regional Emission Control Area (ECA) to cap sulphur content of shipping fuel at 0.1% within 200 nautical miles. ECAs, which are already in effect in the United States, Canada and northern Europe, provide the most protective clean air standards available under international law and would dramatically reduce polluting emissions from shipping.

III. Ensure strong environmental safeguards for shale gas development

Having observed the rapid scale-up of natural gas from shale in the US, China is aiming to replicate the boom. But US experience has also demonstrated the importance of establishing strong safeguards for shale-gas development in order to protect and conserve precious water resources used to extract the gas, minimise methane and other air pollutant emissions and protect public health.

The Working Group should develop partnerships with China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection to ensure such safeguards are put in place and lessons shared. For example, the US has finalised standards for volatile organic compounds that will also reduce methane emissions from new natural gas facilities.

In May last year, the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue included an agreement to “strengthen future cooperation concerning shale gas development and regulatory and environmental frameworks”. But China’s main environmental regulator is the Ministry of Environmental Protection, which currently lacks any environmental regulations or standards specific to shale gas.

It would be very productive for the US environmental regulator, the Environmental Protection Agency, China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection and NGOs to cooperate on environmental and climate regulatory frameworks for shale gas. Key areas for exchange of best practices include environmental impact assessment, testing and monitoring of well integrity, methane emissions controls, wastewater reduction, treatment and disposal and monitoring and regulatory practices.

The US and China do not have to start from scratch in these efforts. Many of them are already under way with varying levels of effectiveness and support. However, to be effective, the US and China will need a stronger political commitment from the heads of government, scaled-up resources and focused efforts to ensure that the actions are delivered on the ground in each country. NGOs like NRDC, along with public-private partnerships like the China-US Energy Efficiency Alliance, can provide strong support to government efforts. Such assistance is especially important in light of governmental budgetary constraints.

Alvin Lin and Mona Yew from NRDC’s China Program located in Beijing contributed to this post.