Tuesday, December 9, 2008

New US-China EcoPartnership Initiative

China Greenspace is all about international environmental cooperation. So it's quite excited about the recent establishment of the EcoPartnership initiative as part of the US-China Strategic Economic Dialogue (SED).

The SED, just to back up a bit, is a sustained series of high-level meetings between Chinese and American officials "for addressing issues of mutual concern." One major component of the Dialogue concerns Energy and Environment; in June 2008 the two countries announced a "Ten-Year Energy and Environment Framework" through which they intend to "address the challenges of environmental sustainability, climate change, and energy security." So again, right up our alley here at CGS.

The EcoPartnerships were announced at the recent (December 4, 2008) SED ministerial conference in Beijing. EcoPartnerships are intended to link sub-national actors, including local governments, research institutions, and enterprises together to work on specific issues of common environmental concern. The EcoPartnerships framework stipulates that partnerships "may have as their objective the promotion of policy innovation, educational initiatives, technology transfer on appropriate terms, information dissemination."

The EcoPartnerships website, for example, announced that the city of Detroit and Ford Motor Company will work with Chang'an city and auto company to "focus on implementation of electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles." Even cooler, New Orleans' Tulane University will partner with Shanghai's East China Normal University to "develop a global model for the sustainability of coastal cities, focused on restoration, conservation and enhancement of environmentally sensitive wetland areas." Bravo. In fact, CGS can't help but gloat that it suggested this very kind of coastal partnership a couple months ago.

But will they actually accomplish anything? Our friend Charles McElwee at Chinese Environmental Law Blog calls the EcoPartnerships a "boondoggle." He's right that "the US-China energy/environmental cooperation space is already jam packed with initiatives and organizations driven by the private sector and NGO’s." And I say, the more the merrier.

It's true that such low-level cooperation is no substitute for high-level agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and promoting sustainable development. But it's also likely that sub-national partnerships can prepare the ground for the Holy Grail, a US-China agreement on reducing emissions. In a previous post CGS argued, following the featured book Can Asia Change the Game?, that cities in developing countries can help to break the climate deadlock by providing some policy entrepreneurship in reducing emissions. There's no reason, for example, why Shanghai and Los Angeles shouldn't be working together to reduce emissions and improve air quality simultaneously, even while Beijing and Washington dicker over emissions targets. The former pair are both affluent, cosmopolitan places where transportation and industrial emissions impose serious economics and aesthetic costs. Cooperation between each city's renowned universities can only bring benefits to both.

So the basic proposition here is that sub-national cooperation on environmental issues can help subvert national-level intransigence. It's a thankless, herculean task to negotiate a bilateral (let alone global) agreement on greenhouse gas emissions reduction. But for Shanghai and LA, for example, to do the same would in all likelihood be a lot easier.

It remains unclear how effective EcoPartnerships will be, and they probably won't result in sub-national agreements to reduce emissions. But they are almost certain to represent value added, and CGS, for one, is happy even in such a crowded "cooperation space" to see the SED promoting Eco-Partnerships. Now if the rest of the government (and economy) would only start thinking this way, we might really be getting somewhere.

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