US and China Sign Agreement for Cooperation on Climate Change, Energy and Environment

The U.S. and China, the world's two largest global warming polluters, signed an agreement yesterday that recognizes the "very important role" that both countries have in combating climate change, and commits both countries to "respond vigorously" to the challenges of energy security, climate change and environmental protection through ambitious domestic action and international cooperation.  Significantly, although China and the U.S. have formally cooperated on energy and environmental protection for nearly three decades, this is the first major agreement between the countries to focus explicitly on strengthening and coordinating efforts to combat global climate change. 

The agreement was reached at the end of two days of talks called the China-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED), which brought to Washington around 150 senior Chinese officials, 24 of them at or above the ministerial level, to meet with top U.S. cabinet officials.  President Obama also welcomed the Chinese delegation, stressing in his speech the importance of U.S.-China cooperation on clean energy and forging a global response to climate change. 

To help both countries transition to a low-carbon economy, the agreement calls for cooperation on capacity building and research, development and deployment of climate-friendly technology, with a focus on the following areas:

  • 1) Energy conservation and energy efficiency
  • 2) Renewable energy
  • 3) Cleaner use of coal, and carbon capture and storage (CCS),
  • 4) Sustainable transportation, including electric vehicles
  • 5) Modernization of the electrical grid
  • 6) Joint research and development of clean energy technologies
  • 7) Clean air
  • 8) Clean water
  • 9) Natural resource conservation, e.g., protection of wetlands and nature reserves
  • 10) Combating climate change and promoting low-carbon economic growth.

Compared to the areas of cooperation listed in the Ten Year Framework for Energy and Environment signed last June, the focus on cleaner use of coal and CCS, joint R&D on clean energy technologies (likely being coordinated through the new U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center announced during Secretary Chu's visit to Beijing earlier this month), and combating climate change and promoting low-carbon economic growth appear to be new areas of cooperation.

The agreement also establishes a Climate Change Policy Dialogue and Cooperation as a platform for the U.S. and China to hold regular consultations to address, and hopefully resolve, key sticking points to reaching a meaningful international climate agreement.  This was one of NRDC's key recommendations to policy makers and leaders in both countries in our June 2009 issue paper¸ Global Solutions to Global Warming.

Establishment of this regular dialogue will help to solidify a serious bilateral negotiation that will prove crucial to securing a strong international agreement on climate change (as my colleague Jake Schmidt has discussed here).  Senior representatives from both governments have now been formally tasked with regular dialogue on climate change.  We (and the rest of the world) hope that this dialogue produces meaningful actions to address global warming pollution from these two major emitting countries.

As part of the Climate Change Policy Dialogue and Cooperation, the U.S. and China agreed to promote practical solutions for promoting the transition to low-carbon economies and pragmatic cooperation on climate change between cities, universities, provinces and states of the two countries. This focus on concrete, achievable solutions will help to build mutual trust and jumpstart the implementation of any international climate agreement.  It can also help identify areas where cooperation will help both countries to create new jobs and new clean energy industries (as Jin Jiaman, Executive Director of Chinese NGO Global Environmental Institute, noted in this L.A. Times piece).  Private companies and non-governmental organizations also have a vital role to play in developing climate-friendly solutions that will revitalize our two economies.  (To this end, NRDC recently issued a set of proposals for both countries to cooperate in three areas: building energy rating and labeling systems, CCS and energy efficiency resource standards.  These are areas we believe are ripe for cooperation and in which each country has much to offer the other.)

This agreement is a welcome step forward in breaking the longstanding US-China stalemate on climate issues, although implementation will require an enormous amount of hard work on both sides.  Senator Kerry, who released a report on "Broadening the Bilateral: Seizing the Opportunity for Meaningful U.S.-China Collaboration on Climate Change" in conjunction with the S&ED, has recommended that the U.S. and China collaborate by building a joint laboratory for clean energy technologies, creating green landmark projects to test technologies such as carbon capture and storage and concentrated solar power, and training a clean energy corp to help fully capture billions of dollars in energy efficiency opportunities.  These kinds of initiatives would help both countries to focus on the very concrete technology development and capacity-building that will achieve real reductions in greenhouse gases in both countries. 

Our experience in China shows that both sides have much to offer each other, and that cooperation can indeed yield concrete GHG reductions. According to the Jiangsu Economic & Trade Commission, our work has helped the province begin to build a large-scale industrial energy efficiency program that in its first three years saved enough energy to equal that produced by a 300 megawatt (MW) coal-fired power plant. The installed energy efficiency measures helped Jiangsu reduce 580 MW of peak load, save 2 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity annually, and reduce CO2 emissions by 1.88 million tons each year during that time period.  Jiangsu expects this program to grow rapidly as it develops the necessary capacity, with 13,376,800 tons of cumulative CO2 reductions by the end of 2010.

Yesterday's agreement on Climate Change, Clean Energy and Environment is an important first step in building a long-term cooperative relationship between both countries to tackle the challenge of climate change together. As Andrew Revkin said in his recent blog, "What's not to like? Of course, the details - as with so many agreements of this sort - lie in money and specifics related to prickly issues like trade barriers impeding the flow of technology and questions about protecting intellectual property... But too much focus on locking up innovations could impede progress on important technologies, according to Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Robert Frosch of Harvard."

Both sides have a ways to go before we can say that they are on the right path to solving global warming.  But at least they have agreed to the start of that walk together.