The Tianjin Climate Talks: A Dose of "Conventional" Chinese Wisdom

At the outset of this new round of UN climate negotiations in Tianjin, it seems that no high-level speech is complete without a dose of traditional Chinese wisdom.  The UNFCCC Executive Secretary, Christiana Figueres, sprinkled proverbs in her speeches throughout the first day. “If we all act together we can achieve anything” she said in the morning while inaugurating an international “great wall” of climate activist photographs.  Later during the opening ceremonies she referenced a speech by Zhou Enlai, a former Premier of China, who in 1955 implored deadlocked negotiators to “seek commonalities while putting aside differences.”

Chinese idioms may or may not provide the needed motivation for these climate discussions, but I get the sense at least that China’s negotiators are making a concerted effort to blend in, even as China and the “eco-city” host of Tianjin put themselves on display. National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) Vice Minister Xie Zhenhua, himself a native of Tianjin, deflected any suggestion that China was hosting the talks in order to push its own agenda or showcase the actions it is taking to fulfill its carbon reduction commitments.  “China is just the host,” he said, to questions by reporters mid-day.

China is certainly conscious of its new label as the world’s biggest energy consumer, having grown past the United States over the summer.  But there are major areas where China is leading the world in addressing climate change, and the United States and others would be wise to take heed of its example.

As detailed in our new fact sheet, From Crisis to Opportunity: How China is Addressing Climate Change and Positioning Itself to be a Leader in Clean Energy [link], China invested more money last year in clean energy than any other country in the world.  China outpaced the US in new wind power installations in 2009, and in 2010 the gap is growing.  Across the board, from energy efficiency and transmission to transportation and low-carbon energies, China is pushing ahead with policies, incentives and projects that cement its global leadership.

The U.S. isn’t just falling behind China.  According to a Pew Report “Who’s Winning the Clean Energy Race” [link], the U.S. has also fallen behind Turkey, Brazil, the United Kingdom and Italy.

Great Britain, for instance is investing heavily in its offshore wind industry – which is expected to create 70,000 new jobs by 2020.[1] In the year 2012, the wind industry is expected to offer 1 million jobs worldwide.[2]  If the U.S. fails to enact strong national climate policies and ramp up new renewable energy investments and incentives, those jobs aren’t going to materialize – or rather, they might be created elsewhere.

Admittedly, China and the U.S. have very different development approaches, and the countries are in different stages of their development trajectory.  But let’s be clear – the U.S. has lots of motivation to transform its economy to run on clean energy: preventing climate change, securing jobs, and reducing reliance on dangerous fuels.  The U.S. is missing opportunities.  Ernst & Young’s most recent Country Attractiveness Indices” for renewable energy investment indicate that China has become the most attractive market for renewables development in the world, replacing the U.S. after several years at the top. By failing to create a federal Renewable Energy Standard and letting other renewable incentives programs expire, the U.S. has effectively knocked itself out of the top spot.

But this situation doesn’t have to continue.  The U.S. can take initiative and be a leader again on clean energy – reducing U.S. carbon emissions, creating clean energy jobs and again leading the world to a sustainable future. To end with another Chinese proverb that I don’t think has been used (yet) at this conference: “Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”


This post was co-authored with Phillip Hannam.