China-U.S. Talks Will Hopefully Build Common Ground on Fighting Climate Change

Written by Duncan Marsh on . Posted in Learn, The Wonk Room

This post was originally published in the National Journal

Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit this week with President Barack Obama could open the way toward a much-needed new era in U.S.-China cooperation on clean energy and climate change.

The rest of the world is well aware that solutions to the climate challenge rest upon the extent to which these two countries – the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases – are willing and able to reduce their carbon pollution. Not surprisingly, the global climate negotiations are sometimes portrayed as a negotiation between these “big two.” While this is an exaggeration, it is clear that solutions to climate change don’t exist without strong action by the U.S. and China.

The two countries, of course, face different national circumstances. The U.S. is the world’s most economically and politically powerful country, and China is still establishing its identity as a major power on the global stage. Though China’s annual emissions have surpassed America’s, the U.S. is, and will remain for some time, the largest historical emitter of greenhouse gases. And per capita, Americans still produce far more greenhouse gases than the average Chinese person.

So China still approaches the international climate negotiations from the perspective of a developing country, emphasizing the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and the importance of leadership by developed countries, who they consider responsible for the majority of climate-inducing emissions to date.

That said, China’s negotiating approach seems to be evolving. China was criticized by some observers for its role in the near-collapse of negotiations in Copenhagen 13 months ago. But China appeared to desire to be perceived as playing a constructive role in last month’s more positive Cancun conference. China’s evolving stance may also be due to a greater sense of confidence based on domestic action. Though its emissions continue to grow, in recent years China has built a strong foundation of progressive policies to promote clean energy and low-carbon development. These include:

-       A national clean energy standard;

-       National energy efficiency goals, implemented through province-level targets;

-       Ambitious reforestation programs that will help sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide;

-       Motor-vehicle-efficiency standards that are 20 percent more stringent than those in the U.S.;

-       Some experimenting with market-based approaches to reducing emissions.

These actions appear to be motivated by domestic concerns at least as much as any desire to cooperate internationally. China’s leaders know their country is vulnerable to impacts of climate change, including the risks that shrinking Himalayan glaciers pose on the country’s already-stretched freshwater resources.

Much has been made of a competition between the U.S. and China in a race to develop and market clean energy and transportation technologies. However, that competition can be healthy, given the need for low-carbon technology development. What is needed most to catalyze this development is an enabling policy environment that encourages investment.

Spurred by its progressive policies, China has become the world’s largest consumer and producer of wind and solar renewable energy technologies. Following the collapse of climate legislation in the U.S. Senate last summer, the head of Deutsche Bank’s Asset Management Division, Kevin Parker, announced that his company’s “green” investments would focus more on opportunities in China and Western Europe, where it sees governments providing a more positive environment than in the U.S.

The stakes are high for both countries. Together, we account for 42 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and 37 percent of energy consumption. The real race, the one that really counts, is not one over who develops which technology first. It’s over when, where, and how the U.S. and China choose to work together to combat climate change. The world is watching.

Duncan Marsh is director of international climate policy at The Nature Conservancy

Photo by: Deng Jia/The Nature Conservancy (FK Green School Opening in Shangri-La as part of our Green Building Project in China.)

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