"Climate Week" and My Talks with China's Top Negotiator

Climate Week has begun, and as foreign dignitaries descend on the United Nations and the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting, I think most of the world's nations will be singing a shared refrain: it is time for the United States to take action on global warming.

That is the message I heard two weeks ago when I met China's top climate negotiator, Minister Xie Zhenhua, in Beijing. Our conversation was an informative, cordial follow-up to a meeting we had in Washington in the spring.

Once again, Minister Xie said he hopes that Congress will pass a U.S. climate bill before international negotiations begin in Copenhagen in December. He noted that the EU has committed to a 20 to 30 percent reduction in global warming pollution from 1990 levels, and both Australia and Japan have raised their targets to 25 percent. "All these developed countries are very positive," he said. "Now it is the U.S.'s turn."

Of course he is right, and I agreed that the U.S. needs to demonstrate leadership.

But I also said that the NRDC staff at the meeting did not represent the U.S. government. Our client is the planet, and the health of the Earth demands that the U.S. AND China do everything they can do to avert disaster. Political boundaries don't matter in the atmosphere. We all have to act.

Minister Xie described some of the measures China is already taking to lower its carbon emissions--including some far-reaching efficiency programs that NRDC helped design.

He also talked knowledgeably about developments in the United States. He has traveled to Washington several times to meet with President Obama and members of Congress and the business community.

Interestingly, two U.S. leaders recently flew to Beijing to meet with him. Senator Maria Cantwell from Washington came, possibly because she helped set up a US-China Clean Energy Forum and she sees tech transfer opportunities for her state. Indiana's Governor Mitch Daniels also visited, perhaps because he is concerned about losing manufacturing jobs to China.

Even though the minister was well informed about the Congressional landscape, I wanted to make sure he knew about the groundswell outside of Washington. I told him about the very broad, very deep coalition of environmental, labor, business, religious, and youth groups raising our voices in support of clean energy and climate legislation.

I said we won't let up until the bill is passed. And I reminded him that we are halfway there, since the House passed its climate bill in June. Minister Xie said that was good news for Copenhagen.

What I found most encouraging about my conversation with Minister Xie--and with other high-level officials and entrepreneurs--is that most seem to grasp the urgent need to embrace clean energy solutions like efficiency.

When you travel to China, you get the sense that it is a nation on the move. Some of what is created out of that momentum will be good, but some won't. On either side, the scale will be enormous.

This is especially true in the energy sector. The Chinese will likely implement more clean energy solutions than any other nation--more efficiency, solar, wind, and biofuels. But they will also likely use more coal-fired power and more nuclear power. One task ahead is to level the playing field by ensuring that the full costs of every energy technology are reflected in its price, and that environmental laws are fully enforced, so that renewable energy can compete successfully.

Luckily, clean technology is already gearing up. I attended a clean tech conference in Shanghai co-sponsored by the local American Chamber of Commerce and the Asia Society. About two-thirds of the participants were Westerners; the rest were Chinese. At the end, someone asked me, "Did you notice that the Chinese business people were here at the beginning of the conference, but they didn't stay? They are more focused on action than on talking."

That is what we should be focused on here in America. We need to take swift action in order to confront global warming and to unleash energy innovation here at home. Maybe then the rest of the world will do the same.