Obama's China Trip: A Breakthrough on Clean Energy and Climate

Earlier this week, NRDC's China program director Barbara Finamore was at China's official state guesthouse--the same spot President Nixon stayed when he opened U.S.-China relations in 1972--when U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu announced that the United States and China would sign several cooperative agreements on clean energy.

The guesthouse was full of top government officials and energy innovators from both countries attending a Clean Energy Roundtable, and they responded to the announcement with considerable enthusiasm. These influential leaders recognize the urgency of climate change and understand the need for China and the United States to each take action.

This clean energy meeting in Beijing was one of several auxiliary events that made President Obama's trip to China a significant breakthrough on the climate front.

Some press accounts have claimed the trip fell short, because it did not result in firm commitments to reduce emissions on either side of the Pacific. I never expected it would.

But we have to acknowledge the enormous progress this trip signaled on both sides of the Pacific.

Recall that for eight long years, America was absent from the climate discussion. President Bush doubted the crisis existed and failed to take any action whatsoever. In sharp contrast, President Obama has put America back into a position of leadership in 10 short months. Not only has he asked the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide from cars and power plants and pressed Congress to pass national climate legislation, but he has also used his time on the world stage--at the United Nations and in China--to call for a binding international agreement.

Similar progress has occurred in China. Up until three years ago, China looked at global warming as someone else's problem; the government essentially refused to talk about it. In fact, when NRDC started working in China to address global warming, we could not speak those words. We had to talk about pollution and energy efficiency instead.

Since then, China has realized that it is in its own best interests to address global warming, and it has begun the process. It has enacted stringent fuel economy standards for cars, launched what may be the world's most ambitious energy efficiency program, committed to generating 10 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2010, and 15 percent by 2020, and invested billions of dollars in green energy technologies.

Both nations still need to do more. Ultimately, they must each commit to emissions limits and fixed timetables. But the fact that President Obama and President Hu Jintao met together to talk about climate change--a problem neither nation officially acknowledged just a few years ago--represents a huge leap down the path toward confronting this crisis.

The agreements they signed on Tuesday will start making their progress concrete. The energy efficiency action plan, for instance, will bring U.S. and Chinese officials together to develop energy efficient building codes and labeling systems, set benchmarks for efficiency in the industrial sector, and train inspectors to ensure these standards are being met. The joint agreements on electric vehicles and renewable power will bring similar on-the-ground advances (see Barbara Finamore's recent post for more details).

I hope that other nations will recognize these unprecedented developments as proof that China and the United States are both serious about solving climate change as we head into the Copenhagen talks. 

Those talks remain critically important, even as Danish Prime Minister Rasmussen has proposed the "one agreement, two steps" approach, which will extend the release of the final, legally binding agreement by a few months.

Copenhagen is one stop on a long journey. The Singapore decision maintains momentum as we head into the December summit. It will clear the air and prevent finger-pointing about who is lagging behind. Instead, we can use the talks to map out specific commitments that will get us to a real binding agreement within the year.

Indeed, this approach gives countries a chance to solidify their individual commitments to reduce global warming pollution. This in turn could help push the U.S. Senate to pass its climate law, because if developing nations like China announce their pledges for reductions, it sends a clear signal that the United States will not be acting alone.

Judging from the meetings in Beijing, neither the United States nor China will be acting alone in the future.