Obama's Trip to China: a New Interest in Clean Tech and a New Spirit of Cooperation

As President Obama heads to China, it is important to recognize just how much has changed in the past year. For the first time ever, an American president is traveling to Beijing with the issue of climate change at the top of his agenda. This kind of focus would have been unthinkable during the Bush administration, but in the past 10 months, Obama has directed federal agencies and urged Congress to take real action on climate.

But that is only half of the story. The long-held belief that China isn't doing much to confront climate change has now become old news too.

Under the leadership of President Hu Jintao, China has taken bold steps to reduce its energy use. Yet one of the most interesting threads in this new China narrative is rarely told on this side of the Pacific: China's private sector is as eager to make these changes as China's government.

I saw it for myself when I went to China in September. Clean energy innovation was at the center of every conversation I had with Chinese business executives and the media, not to mention government officials (including Minister Xie, China's lead climate negotiator).

While I was in Shanghai, I attended a clean tech conference. It was co-sponsored by the local American Chamber of Commerce, so about two-thirds of the participants were Westerners, and 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."

The reason is obvious: there is enormous market potential here. A recent report estimated that the potential clean technology market in China in 2013 could be between $500 billion to $1 trillion. Meanwhile, China is set to become the world's leading manufacturer of wind turbines this year, and is already the top producer of photovoltaic cells for solar energy.

This explosive private growth is no doubt inspired by government policy. China has set renewables targets of 10 percent for 2010 and 15 percent by 2020. It is also reportedly preparing plans to invest between $440 billion and $660 billion in the next 10 years on alternative energy development in what could be the largest government renewables program in the world--part of its effort to boost China's clean energy industry.

America can no longer say we are waiting for China to move first before we act on climate solutions. The train has already left the station.

We need to set our own clean energy innovators in motion now if we want to keep the pace. We need to put our own clean energy policies in place, such as the climate legislation now before the Senate. As I explain in my new book, Clean Energy Common Sense, this will not only put us at the forefront of a global market, but it will also put millions of Americans to work.

Yet the truth is if China and America both work to expand clean energy technologies, this isn't a competition. This is an opportunity where we can all win.

We will all benefit from making clean tech advances--whether they are Chinese or American--and from bringing cost downs for these new technologies. And of course, the whole planet will benefit from these two major polluters reducing their carbon emissions.

This is the new landscape in which President Obama and President Hu Jintao are meeting. Both nations have made their own efforts to confront climate change. Now it is time for us to work together on this global challenge.

While it is unlikely that President Obama's visit will generate new commitments to cut emissions, Obama and Hu Jintao will probably agree to work together on a variety of efforts, including expanding energy efficiency, developing electric vehicles, building capacity to measure and report emissions, and even opening a joint clean energy research center that would employee both Chinese and American engineers.

This kind of tangible bi-lateral progress will help clear the way toward significant progress in Copenhagen and beyond. And that is what we need to see--momentum that will carry us over the long-term.

For as welcome as both China and America's climate actions have been in the past year, they are only the beginning. Truly combating global warming will take sustained commitments from both of the world's biggest polluters, and these efforts will be far more effective if they are done cooperatively.