Recommendations for U.S.-China Collaboration to Address Climate Change

During the U.N. climate talks in Bonn, U.S. special envoy for climate change Todd Stern said he was "immensely impressed" by all that China is doing to curb emissions of greenhouse gases, such as setting ambitious targets for energy intensity and renewables and tough efficiency standards for automobiles and the top 1000 energy-using enterprises.  But he also said that China must do a lot more to fight climate change. 


I think the same is true of the U.S. And there is much that both countries can do to help each other ramp up their efforts.


I had the privilege of meeting with Special Envoy Stern at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing during Secretary Clinton's visit to China in February. I was invited, along with representatives from four other nongovernmental organizations active in China, to share my views on negotiating a climate treaty with China and on shaping a vastly expanded program of bilateral cooperation. The four critical strategies I suggested were:


  • Strong bilateral cooperation can help break the US-China climate stalemate: International climate negotiations alone cannot break the US-China climate deadlock or overcome the strong mutual distrust that has built up on this issue between the two countries. Moreover, a global climate agreement cannot be reached unless and until the US and China find common ground.


  • Begin with a strategic and coordinated focus on energy efficiency: There are many areas where deeper cooperation between US and China could reap benefits for both countries but given our limited resources and the global economic downturn, it is critical to start with a strategic and coordinated effort that focuses on an area with the greatest potential for rapid CO2 emission reductions at the least cost. Energy efficiency can generate nearly immediate results with existing technology and proven policies and do so while generating strong financial returns that exceed those from investment in conventional energy supply. Cooperation on energy efficiency measures is cost-effective, builds upon the considerable expertise that already exists in the US, and avoids entanglement in the issue of whether the US should pay China to reduce its emissions.


  • Look to the roadmap that already exists for how to capture the enormous potential for CO2 reductions through energy efficiency in both countries: In the US, the Department of Energy and EPA have already facilitated the development of a comprehensive National Action Plan for Energy Efficiency that identifies key barriers limiting greater U.S. investment in energy efficiency, and develops and documents sound business practices for removing these barriers. This Action Plan states that it lays the groundwork for a sustainable, aggressive national commitment to energy efficiency that takes advantage of large opportunities in U.S. homes, buildings, and schools to reduce energy use, save billions on customer energy bills, and reduce the need for new power supplies. Based on the proven policies and measures identified in the Action Plan, we have been working with the Chinese government to develop a similar comprehensive roadmap for capturing the enormous potential for energy efficiency and CO2 reduction in China's industrial sector, which consumes over two-thirds of China's energy. This roadmap is based on the success of China's first large-scale demand-side management (DSM) program in Jiangsu Province, the sister province of California. NRDC and its sister organization, the China-US Energy Efficiency Alliance, are leading this effort in an innovative public-private partnership that brings to Jiangsu the top experts and government officials in California, which leads the US in both energy efficiency and climate protection commitments.


  • Develop Joint Policy Initiatives That Will Stimulate Green Jobs and Avoid Placing Either Country at a Competitive Disadvantage - There are also enormous opportunities for both the US and China to cooperate in the development of strategies that will jump-start the global economy, create green jobs and protect the climate. For example, we could cooperate in the establishment of "green" special economic zones (SEZs) in both countries aimed at fostering the growth of companies manufacturing energy efficient products and technologies, renewable energy technologies and other related products. The SEZs would provide tax incentives, infrastructure and special policies to encourage the growth of these preferred green industries. Demand for investment in these green SEZs would be driven by demand for "green" technologies in turn spurred by the US stimulus package. China's stimulus could also expand the market for products produced in these green SEZs. Robust demand in both nations and the rest of the world will help drive these industries to scale, pushing down costs and accelerating the ultimate implementation of low-carbon, green technologies. The US and China could also cooperate on joint policy initiatives such as internationally coordinated minimum performance standards or tax policies to improve efficiency and/or reduce carbon emissions from vehicles, equipment and appliances. For example, working on the first-ever joint project between the US and China to coordinate the testing methods and performance measures for a product, NRDC helped establish a single worldwide specification for external power supplies for electronics. This standard has been adopted on a voluntary basis in China, Australia and the US, and will become mandatory in China in the next few years.


I came away from the meeting impressed by the high level of attention given to climate change during Secretary Clinton's visit to China.  I was also energized by the realization that NRDC has a unique role to play on this issue.


My meeting with Stern led to an invitation to testify at a hearing of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. I flew to Washington D.C. where I testified on March 4th at a hearing on the current efforts of developing nations to fight climate change and what this means for the climate negotiations in Copenhagen at the end of 2009.  I described the efforts China is taking to mitigate climate change and what the U.S. can and should be asking of that nation.


I relayed information on China's efforts to improve energy efficiency, bring down energy demand and reduce the carbon intensity of its energy supply. China is currently pursuing an aggressive and ambitious greenhouse gas mitigation program-a result of its recognition that its present development model is unsustainable and that climate change is likely to have serious impacts on its agricultural productivity and water resources (causing droughts in the north and flooding in the south and on its coasts), increase the incidence of extreme weather events, and lead to deterioration of its forests and other natural ecosystems.  China is also keenly aware of the intimate connection between its enormous growth in energy demand and its energy security, and the serious public health and environmental damage caused by emissions of pollutants such as SO2, NOx, particulate matter and mercury from its coal-dominated energy system.


The details of what China has been doing and what they can and will be doing are important and you can read more about them in my testimony. However, what I think is really important in all of this, is that both countries are sitting down at the table, ready to work on tangible solutions. The hearing and the meeting with Todd Stern both highlight that governments are listening and interested in what is taking place and how they can assist and get on board to help. That Todd Stern received a standing ovation at Bonn for a simple though powerful declaration, illustrates the desire for meaningful progress on climate change solutions.