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Heading into Copenhagen: U.S., China Collaborate on Climate Change

December 2, 2009

Next week on Monday, December 7, the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Copenhagen will commence. Despite deteriorating hopes for a binding international treaty to aggressively tackle climate change, the potential remains for useful dialogue, collaboration, and concerted steps forward. Already in the works is an agreement for collaboration on clean energy and climate change between China and the United States – two major countries that will contribute to the pace of the Copenhagen negotiations. But what does this collaboration mean on the ground in practical actions and output, beyond the high-level agendas and statements?

President Obama’s Beijing Visit

Last month, President Obama embarked on his much-anticipated visit to Beijing. On the agenda were energy and climate change. At a town hall meeting in Shanghai, a university student asked the president how the relationship between U.S. and Chinese cities might be strengthened. President Obama replied that his discussions with the mayor of Shanghai revealed potential for the U.S. to learn about Chinese expertise on mass transit, especially high-speed rail. He also noted that as China continues its development, it will be important to incorporate lessons learned by the U.S. on energy-efficient buildings.

Soon after, Beijing heard the announcement that Chinese President Hu Jintao and President Obama agreed to a “positive, cooperative, and comprehensive plan for collaboration on clean energy and climate change.” For some, the agreement surpassed expectations, and was refreshingly ambitious and direct. Cooperation includes the establishment of a U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center, development of joint standards for electric vehicles, and energy-efficient building codes and rating systems. Further collaboration between the two governments will aim to develop cleaner coal technologies and explore shale gas resources.

Collaboration on the Ground

Also last month, Professor Zhao Gang, an energy specialist who directs the Chinese Academy of Science and Technology for Development within China’s Ministry of Science and Technology, embarked on a study tour throughout the U.S. to examine the policy mechanisms and current research on clean energy technologies and climate change. Supported by The Asia Foundation’s Chang Lin Tien Fellowship, the tour was organized by the Foundation’s Asian-American Exchange unit and included visits throughout the Bay Area, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., and with the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, University of California Davis Energy Institute, and Pacific Gas and Electric, among many others.

Through these visits, Dr. Zhao worked with government officials at national, state, and municipal levels, as well as with individuals in academia, NGOs, and the private sector, to identify points of collaboration between Chinese and American initiatives. As a professor and director of the Chinese Academy of Science and Technology for Development, Dr. Zhao was particularly interested in cooperation with other research institutions. He said he found the Los Angeles-based RAND Corporation’s strong objective research and constructive critical review process very informative and instructive. In Washington, D.C., a meeting with the World Resources Institute (WRI) led to a joint proposal for a presentation at the Copenhagen Conference. At the conclusion of his tour, Dr. Zhao identified the potential for U.S.-China collaboration on green building technology, hybrid cars, renewable energy applications including wind and solar, and on nuclear technology, smart grid distribution, and localized city initiatives.

Heading into Copenhagen

Soon after the U.S.-China collaboration announcement in Beijing, both countries took the initiative further, and set targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. China will aim to dramatically reduce its carbon intensity, or CO2 emissions per unit of economic output, by 40 to 45 percent by 2020, based on of 2005 emission levels. The U.S. set a goal to reduce total emissions “in the range of” 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, and 83 percent by 2050.

While some responded with criticism as to the real impact these targets will have, the recent movement forward on an international effort on climate change, after a long period of stagnation, has been propelled by the U.S.-China collaboration – and just in time. It is this dialogue that will serve as a starting point for the long road ahead to a binding international treaty with strong commitments. Professor Zhao, along with those involved in the cooperative agreements made by the two countries, will help begin to translate these initiatives into action. The concerted efforts thus far show that both countries acknowledge a responsibility toward action, and that on this issue, they must work together.

Lisa Hook works in The Asia Foundation’s Environment Program. She can be reached at lhook@asiafound.org.

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