Friday, February 27, 2009

Momentum on US-China climate cooperation builds; Tsinghua holds "Overcoming Obstacles to US-China Cooperation on Climate Change" Seminar

Following Secretary of State Clinton's visit to Beijing, Ken Lieberthal, co-author of a landmark Brookings Institution report on US-China climate cooperation, headlined a seminar at Tsinghua University on overcoming obstacles to such cooperation. This post offers a brief re-cap of the seminar, and goes on to note some of the ripple effects of Clinton's visit. In general, it's fair to say there's a lot of momentum in US-China climate cooperation; the challenge will be to sustain it even as both countries plunge further into recession.

Dr. Lieberthal mainly elaborated on one of the report's main findings, that climate cooperation should be seen as central to the US-China relationship. Secretary Clinton, Lieberthal noted, raised the climate issue in almost every meeting she had during her visit to Beijing. Washington should sustain this emphasis, Lieberthal continued, and see bilateral climate cooperation as the motor for global action. US-China climate cooperation should in turn be part of a shift in the bilateral relationship which views China as a strategic partner on a range of global issues, as opposed to merely regional ones like North Korea.

Lieberthal was also emphatic that Chinese leaders should understand that their willingness to offer concrete steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions directly impacts Washington's ability to do the same; the chief opposition argument to US action is that it will make no difference unless China takes similar steps. Such political arguments also obscure real advantages in strengthening US-China climate collaboration. Lieberthal cited in particular the relative advantages of using China for clean technology demonstration projects: in America, a carbon capture and sequestration plant requires a 6-year permitting process; in China, the time period is less than 2 years.

The reactions of Chinese panelists, including former People's Congress leader Cheng Siwei and Tsinghua professor Hu Angang, broadly fit under the "cautious optimism" paradigm (see previous post). Cheng agreed that trust and dialogue is essential, but went on to reiterate the familar talking points regarding historical emissions, China's developing country status, and the "embedded carbon" in making exports for the West (this is clearly a spurious argument; see China Environmental Law on this).

Hu was a bit bolder, noting that "If the US does not succeed [in reducing its greenhouse gas emissions], neither will China." Hu also called climate change an integral consideration for 21-st century economic development policy, and called the creation of a green economy an opportunity for China to "leapfrog" the most carbon-intensive stages of economic growth. The US and China have shared dreams, said Hu, including a "green dream." Perhaps most consequentially, Hu argued that China should see action on climate change as part of its responsibility as a global power and leader in the world.

Such positivity was broadly, if more cautiously, echoed across the Chinese bureaucracy. The deputy chief of China's National Energy Administration told a US-China forum on energy efficiency that "The two countries could further cooperate on a wide range of areas in the development of economic and energy sectors against the background of economic globalization" (see Xinhua). China Daily issued a sunny report on the Tsinghua seminar, before concluding with a cautious quotation from Cheng: "Dialogues on climate change are in the interest of both China and the US, but each side should work out a plan to combat climate change according to different national conditions."

Meanwhile, China's National Statistics Bureau announced that the nation's energy intensity fell 4.59% in 2008, slightly higher than predicted (see Xinhua). While this is a step forward, the number more than anything else indicates the scale of the task confronting US-China climate cooperation. China Environmental Law has an excellent post on this, so CGS will do no more than to conclude by saying we must hope that the Hu-Lieberthal view of climate cooperation as a strategic and central issue is sustained over time. It really is nothing less than a test of both nation's ability to be responsible partners in the international community- in America's case, after eight years of reckless unilateralism, and in China's case, as part of coming to terms with becoming an economic giant.

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