Report Outlines U.S.-China Climate Opportunities

Coal workerChina and the United States should focus on their similarities, rather than their differences, to jumpstart bilateral climate negotiations, a pair of former White House staffers recommended yesterday.

Unable to agree on each other's role in addressing climate change, the talks between the world's two largest greenhouse gas emitters have remained in gridlock since the United States excused itself from the Kyoto Protocol in 2001.

To ease into a new era of policymaking, both countries should focus on popular initiatives that could still significantly reduce emissions, such as shared efforts to develop electric vehicles, green buildings, and carbon sequestration projects, the former staffers said in a Brookings Institution report.

"Climate change evokes philosophical disagreements, whereas clean energy evokes economic opportunities," said co-author David Sandalow, who served as associate director for the global environment in former U.S. President Bill Clinton's Council on Environmental Quality.

The report comes a few weeks before U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton's first visit to China in her new position. Clinton, who is expected to discuss climate change, will likely set a new tone for U.S foreign relations toward China.

Rather than grapple with the most controversial issues in the climate change debate - trade competition, coal use, and emission targets - a focus on mutually beneficial, large-scale projects would "capture the public's imagination" for further emission reductions, said Sandalow, a Brookings Institution senior fellow who is rumored to earn a new position in President Barack Obama's administration.

The two countries could also strengthen pre-existing local partnerships that exchange technology and expertise in a range of climate-related industries. For example, Denver, Colorado, and the Chinese city of Chongqing have joined forces to develop electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles. These partnerships currently suffer from "information barriers" and a lack of funding, the report said.

Other countries, especially Japan and the European Union, have also provided services to help develop green buildings, electric vehicles, and carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology in China. The United States now may interfere with the other countries' efforts if it suddenly increases its attention, said Elizabeth Economy, director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"I don't mind duplicating their efforts, but we don't want to undermine them," Economy said. "Maybe we should look ahead, [for instance] at India, for issues where China is already under way."

China has focused much of its climate change policies on improving energy efficiency, with significantly greater renewable energy investments as well. Its leadership has opposed binding emission reductions because much of the country is still developing, and its per-capita emissions are much smaller than those of the United States and other developed nations.

"China has done a lot, but of course it's not enough," said Zhou Wenzhong, Chinese ambassador to the United States, at the Brookings report launch. "Our most urgent issue is to limit poverty and develop the economy for one-fifth of the world's people."

The administration of former U.S. President George W. Bush refused to rejoin international climate treaties until China also agreed to cut emissions. Obama has also stated that China should participate in global emission reduction efforts, but he has promised that the United States will lead in a new international agreement.

The United States and China, combined, contribute more than 40 percent of the world's annual greenhouse gas emissions. World leaders such as United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon have requested that both countries increase their reduction commitments.

"Neither side is doing enough," said Kenneth Lieberthal, a co-author of the Brookings report who served as senior director for Asia on President Clinton's National Security Council. "Each of us plays a major role in the politics of this issue in either country, and none of us are very sensitive to that."

In addition to the Brookings recommendations, the U.S.-based research group Asia Society released a roadmap yesterday for United States-Chinese climate cooperation.  

The report, which U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu co-chaired before his selection, outlines several bold, sweeping changes to reduce both countries' emissions. For instance, the report suggests greater investment in CCS from coal-fired power plants, a "smart" electrical grid, and broad deployment of wind and solar energy.

The Chinese government has requested that foreign governments provide greater technology transfers as part of an international climate regime. But China should still be more proactive in its requests during negotiations, Economy said.

"They don't have the capacity to do what they really want to get done," she said. "So [priorities] need to come from them."

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at

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