Common challenge, collaborative response

A report aims to provide the new US administration with a policy road map for climate-change cooperation with China. chinadialogue publishes the executive summary.  

A new comprehensive programme for cooperation between the United States and China that focuses on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, and thus mitigating the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change, is both necessary and possible. Indeed, as this report suggests, if human beings hope to avoid the worst consequences of global climate change, the United States and China—respectively the world’s largest developed and developing nations, the two largest energy consumers, and the two largest producers of greenhouse gases—have no alternative but to become far more active partners in developing low-carbon economies.

To prevail in such a common effort, both countries will need not only bold leadership and a new set of national policies, but also a path-breaking cooperative agenda that can be sustained over the long run. The advent of a new US presidential administration in Washington, D.C., coupled with a central leadership in Beijing that is increasingly aware of the destructive impact and long-term dangers of climate change, presents an unparalleled opportunity for this new strategic partnership.

While the current global economic crisis could make joint action between the United States and China more difficult, it could also provide an unexpected impetus. If wisely allocated, funds invested by both governments in economic recovery can help address climate change while also advancing the “green technologies” and industries that will lead to a new wave of economic growth.

Stronger bilateral collaboration on energy and climate change has at the same time the real prospect of helping to build a new, more stable and constructive foundation under Sino-American relations, the most important bilateral relationship in the 21st century world.

This report—which was produced in partnership between Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations and Pew Center on Global Climate Change, in collaboration with The Brookings Institution, Council on Foreign Relations, National Committee on U.S.- China Relations, and Environmental Defense Fund—presents both a vision and a concrete roadmap for such Sino-U.S. collaboration. With input from scores of experts and other stakeholders from the worlds of science, business, civil society, policy, and politics in both China and the United States, the report, or “roadmap,” explores the climate and energy challenges facing both nations and recommends a concrete program for sustained, high-level, bilateral engagement and on-the-ground action. The Report and its recommendations are based on the following understandings:

* That because there is overwhelming scientific consensus that human-induced climate change is well underway and poses grave economic and environmental risks to the world, the United States and China need to immediately begin acting in concert, without awaiting new domestic legislation or multilateral agreements, to jointly seek remedies for their emissions of greenhouse gases.

* That because climate change is largely a consequence of soaring global use of fossil fuels, addressing the problem will require a fundamental transformation of energy systems in both countries, as well as worldwide, through the development and deployment of new technologies and the widespread introduction of new energy sources capable of enhancing the diversity, reliability, independence, and “greenness” of national energy supplies.

* That even during a time of global economic upheaval, a strong bilateral effort to address the twin challenges of climate change and energy security can succeed while also contributing to economic recovery and laying the foundation for a prosperous, new, low carbon economy in each country.

* That a meaningful U.S.-China partnership on climate change issues can be forged on the basis of equity, taking into account the respective stages of development, capacities, and responsibilities of each country.

* That while enhanced U.S.-China cooperation must begin with collaboration between the two national governments, success will ultimately hinge on each nation’s ability to catalyse action and investment in the marketplace.

* That if fashioned carefully, closer collaboration on energy and climate can address the problem of climate change and enhance the economic prospects of both nations while conferring on neither an unfair competitive advantage.

* That by demonstrating global leadership and making significant new progress toward closer bilateral cooperation, the world’s two largest economies will help achieve stronger multilateral agreement and action under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The report recommends that, as a first step in forging this new partnership, the leaders of the two countries should convene a leaders summit as soon as practically possible following the inauguration of Barack Obama to launch a “US-China Partnership on Energy and Climate Change.” This presidential summit should outline a major plan of joint-action and empower relevant officials in each country to take the necessary actions to ensure its implementation.

The report recommends that the partnership be directed by two parallel groups. A US-China high-level council would be established to draw up overall plans for the collaboration.

The Commission would include high-ranking environment, energy, and finance officials from both countries. It would meet regularly to establish and review the strategic direction of the new partnership as well as to discuss other issues of common concern, including those relating to ongoing multilateral negotiations.

In addition, each of the highlighted concrete priority areas proposed below would be guided by a second tier of bilateral task forces. These would be composed of senior government officials and independent experts in science, technology, business, finance, civil society, and policy from each country. Their responsibilities would involve establishing goals, designating joint-research areas, developing collaborative programs within each of the designated areas, organizing concrete joint projects in each area of cooperation, and overseeing the implementation of these projects.

Areas where direct collaboration is expected to yield the quickest and most substantial results on reducing greenhouse gas emissions have been given highest priority. They are listed below in shortened form, but discussed in greater detail in Section IV of the report.

Priority areas of collaboration include:

* Deploying low-emissions coal technologies

The likelihood that both the United States and China will continue to rely heavily on coal for many years to come necessitates immediate and large-scale investments in the research, development, and deployment of new technologies for the capture and sequestration of carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants.

* Improving energy efficiency and conservation

Both the United States and China have significant potential to lower their carbon emissions through low-cost, and even no-cost, energy efficiency and conservation measures that would have considerable impact on each country’s “carbon footprint” and energy security.

* Developing an advanced electric grid 

Both the United States and China rely on outdated, decentralized, and inefficient electrical transmission systems. Both countries could profit from research, development, and adoption of new “smart grid” technologies capable of enabling these systems to handle larger quotients of low-carbon energy from episodic, but renewable sources of power more cheaply and efficiently.

* Promoting renewable energy 

There is an obvious need for both countries to develop a far broader deployment of solar, wind, and other renewable sources of energy in order to de-carbonize their respective electricity systems, expand their low-carbon economies, and thereby diminish their carbon emissions per unit of GDP.

* Quantifying emissions and financing low-carbon technologies

To help facilitate cooperation in the above areas, it will be important to continue to jointly address the cross-cutting issues of quantifying and projecting emissions, and financing technology development and deployment. That our planet is now approaching a point of no return on the question of global warming is increasingly self-evident. Recognition of the daunting challenges that such moments pose can be unsettling, even paralysing. However, with bold leadership, they can also be galvanising.

It is unclear as yet whether the growing awareness of our tipping point moment will intersect in a timely manner with the new leadership that is now assuming office in Washington and the increasingly well-informed central leadership in Beijing to catalyse both countries toward mustering the necessary clarity of vision, intellectual resources, funding, technology and international cooperation. What is clear, however, is that we are in uncharted waters that will beg an unprecedented effort from both the world at large and the United States and China in particular. For whether we choose to recognize it or not, these two countries are both crucial in the effort to address climate change. Simply put, if these two countries cannot find ways to bridge the long-standing divide on this issue, there will literally be no solution.

Fortunately, it is the firm conviction of those who have worked on this Report over the past year that the United States and China will both benefit from the kind of collaboration outlined herein. Moreover, not only would such a collaboration allow the world to take a giant step forward in confronting the global climate change challenge, but both the United States and China would indirectly stand to profit immeasurably from it. If their leaders jointly play their cards astutely, the two countries could find themselves in the forefront of a new greentech economy, and in a stronger, more strategic partnership, better able to help lead the world to meet other twenty-first century challenges.

The full report can be downloaded in both languages here.

Homepage photo by jeffory.zhang