Sunday, February 15, 2009

The future of US-China climate cooperation

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will soon arrive in Beijing, with energy and climate to figure high on the agenda (see previous post). Two excellent reports from the Asia Society and the Brookings Institution provide a fine illustration of what should be done as Washington and Beijing begin to take the climate crisis seriously. China Environmental Law Blog provides a thorough commentary on both reports; this post will thus not attempt to summarize, instead making only a few additional comments.

As both reports note, one important driver of US-China energy and climate cooperation is the high proportion of coal in each country's energy mix. Both reports thus single out clean(er) coal technologies as being priority areas for enhanced technology collaboration. In particular, the Asia Society report recommends that the US Department of Energy's FutureGEN program to build an integrated gassification-combined cycle coal demonstration plant in China be accelerated (p 30). This is sensible, but it's important that neither the Chinese nor the American side lose sight of the ultimate goal of transforming the energy infrastructure, rather than simply trying to make coal clean(er). Ultimately, coal is not a sustainable energy source, and as a recent Greenpeace report makes clear, its environmental externalities in China are matched by others in health.

One major emphasis in both reports is on supporting sub-national initiatives, something CGS has consistently championed (see previous post). The Asia Society report notes that in the US, energy efficiency standards have been most effectively implemented at the state and local level; the Brookings report similarly notes the dynamism and vitality of local initiatives to combat climate change. It's clear that the sub-national level should receive substantial attention in an expanded US-China climate cooperation agenda. The Asia Society report further delves into cooperative training, recommending (p 42) that

A cooperative training program for the next generation of interdisciplinary energy
and climate specialists in China and the United States should be promoted to develop
technical expertise and promote mutual understanding.

This is an important idea, and it deserves particular attention. The US government already funds a number of programs designed to accomplish similar goals, including the Fulbright program, which supports this author. Creating a dedicated, Fulbright-like program to encourage US-China collaboration targets money where it's most needed: where scientists and technicians labor at the ground level to create sustainable energy alternatives. Even a small such program can reap massive benefits in terms of human capital enhancements on both sides.

Such a program can also have a small but meaningful impact on another key challenge confronting US-China climate cooperation: mutual distrust. The Brookings report insightfully emphasizes the depth of this mistrust, including the widespread Chinese suspicion that US pressure on climate is part of a strategy to "keep China down." This suspicion is amplified by the related Chinese concern that its economy is being locked into a pollution-intensive, low-value industrial niche from which it will be difficult to escape. Indeed, these insights explain a great deal about the state of US-China climate talks so far, and kudos to Brookings for emphasizing these crucial political contexts.

The Brookings report also provides a helpful insight for conceptualizing the institutional and governance challenges confronting climate issues in China. It's best, says the Brookings report, to think of sociopolitical China as a group of relatively developed urban islands, with a total population of 400 million, scattered amidst a sea of poor agriculturalists who total 800 million. China's leaders struggle to understand the depth of this sea. This conceptualization strikes me as a more subtle, intelligent framework than the "state policy breaks down at the local level" model that typically characterizes Western analytical descriptions of Chinese environmental policy. Even China's leaders, the Brookings report suggests, don't fully understand what's going on, a suggestion that meshes well with observations from the ground here in China.

While the report says relatively little about how to overcome this challenge, it's clear that a lot of attention will have to be given to institutional and political capacity building in US-China climate cooperation. Something that should be emphasized are the benefits that can be gained by giving local jurisdictions leeway to develop their own solutions to environmental problems. As explored in a prior post on China's environmental regionalism, delegating authority and responsibility for environmental protection, rather than ceaselessly trying to tighten the center's grip, may help to work around the capacity problem. The US has a great deal of experience in this kind of "environmental federalism," and could contribute a great deal to developing more autonomous environmental protection institutions in China.

In sum, these two reports are smart and subtle outlines of how the US and China can work together to address the greatest challenge of our time. They are particularly valuable in indicating how framing and context matters: climate and energy cooperation also requites work to diffuse Beijing's mistrust of American intentions. But this commentator for one is sadly skeptical that leaders on both sides will fully grasp the potential and imperative for US-China climate cooperation. One avenue, largely unexplored (though referenced by Brookings) in these two reports, is to frame such cooperation primarily as a security issue. That will be the subject of CGS's next post.


  1. There could be no better investment in America than to invest in energy independence.We need to utilize everything in out power to reduce our dependence on foreign oil including using our own natural resources. Create cheap clean energy,new badly needed green jobs, and reduce our dependence on foreign oil.The high cost of fuel this past year seriously damaged our economy and society. The cost of fuel effects every facet of consumer goods from production to shipping costs. After a brief reprieve gas is inching back up.OPEC will continue to cut production until they achieve their desired 80-100. per barrel. If all gasoline cars, trucks, and SUV's instead had plug-in electric drive trains, the amount of electricity needed to replace gasoline is about equal to the estimated wind energy potential of the state of North Dakota.There is a really good new book out by Jeff Wilson called The Manhattan Project of 2009 Energy Independence Now.

  2. Good article. Two key points I'd like to make in response:
    1) clean coal is interesting. investing in the stuff seems like an obvious waste, since at some point we won't be able to use coal at all. but at the same time, without clean coal technology as a stop gap measure in the meantime, it seems hard to see how we beat global warming. reminds me of this post from green thoughts: the post at the top there describes local and absolute minimum states of carbon emissions. pretty interesting stuff.

    2) in order to ease china's fears of us trying to keep them down, it's critical the US leads the way! think about it, china's current mode of development essentially copies what americans have been doing for years.. cars, skyscrapers, coal plants, etc... but when they see that the future of american is electric cars, net zero skyscrapers, and solar pv farms, they'll want that. they dont want what he had, they want what we have. just like cell phones. the chinese will get them, but americans need to have widespread cell phones first.