Climate Change: U.S. and China—Faraway, So Close

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The UN climate change negotiations have fallen off the news map since last year’s summit in Copenhagen ended in barely avoided disarray, but that doesn’t mean they’ve gone away. China will be hosting interim talks for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Tianjin starting on Oct. 4. That meeting will be the last formal discussions before the annual summit at the end of the year, which will be held in the Mexican resort town of Cancun. (Which means if thousands of people end up waiting outside the gates of the conference, as happened in frosty Copenhagen last year, at least the weather will be nice.)

With no U.S. carbon cap in place, expectations for the Cancun summit have been tamped down, and even less will come out of the Tianjin meeting next week. Here’s what Xie Zhenhua, China’s lead climate official, said in a press conference yesterday:

We aim to reduce the divergence as much as possible and try to achieve positive progress so as to contribute to the progress of the Cancun conference. We hope all parties demonstrate an active and positive political will and, more importantly, translate political will into concrete action

Exciting! But while the heat may be off the UN climate process, there’s a lot going on between the U.S. and China—the world’s top carbon emitter historically and the top current carbon emitter, respectively. How the two countries decide to deal with carbon—and each other—will essentially decide whether the world cooks or cools.

How does it look? If you confine yourself to the UN climate process, not very good. Washington and Beijing clashed repeatedly at the Copenhagen summit—Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao notably slighted President Obama during direct meetings in the Danish capital—and China was the most reluctant of the major powers Obama brought together at the last-minute to create the Copenhagen Accord. The division came in the details—Obama wanted any climate deal reached at Copenhagen to be “measurable, verifiable and reportable,” meaning that any actions taken by governments to cut carbon had to be checkable by the international community. Washington also wanted the Copenhagen deal to represent somewhat of a restart for global climate talks. (The U.S. never ratified the Kyoto Protocol, in part because that agreement’s division of the world into rich countries required to make emission cuts and developing nations—including China—that weren’t mandated to do anything was seen as unfair and unrealistic.)

For China, however, a deal requiring its climate actions to be measurable, verifiable and reportable was unfair, unrealistic and impossible. That attitude stems in part from China’s standard reluctance to accept expanded international authority over its domestic actions—these guys take the Prime Directive seriously—but also because Beijing seems resolutely opposed to any change in global climate negotiations that might weaken the Kyoto wall between developed and developing nations. That’s likely to remain a major sticking point this December. “The U.S. will seek full approval for the Copenhagen Accord at Cancun,” says Kenneth Lieberthal, a China expert and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “China is very reluctant to do that. So both sides will concentrate on getting done what can be done at Cancun.”

And despite the rhetoric you’re likely to hear on the diplomatic stage, there’s a lot the U.S. and China can do together—and a lot they’re already doing. China itself is spending hundreds of billions on renewable energy and energy efficiency, and has set its own targets for cutting its carbon intensity (the amount of carbon used per unit of GDP) over the coming years. (Those goals are either surprisingly impressive or somewhat disappointing, depending on your calculations,  but the point is that Beijing isn’t ignoring carbon—it just seems to want to do so on its own terms, like pretty much everything else.) And the Beijing and Washington are cooperating on clean energy research and implementation—last year Energy Secretary Steven Chu helped put together the U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center, a nearly a multi-million dollar initiative meant to bring together energy researchers from both countries. “Clean energy cooperation is moving very rapidly,” says Lieberthal. “The momentum for these two countries is building.”

That’s because when it comes to clean energy, both nations have a common purpose and complementary abilities. Both are looking to grow their renewable energy sectors and reduce carbon over the long-term. China, with its rapid growth and immense capital, is an ideal laboratory for large-scale clean energy deployment—it’s already building multi-gigawatt-scale wind farms. But China still lags behind the U.S. on energy innovation—the center of clean energy venture capital and start-ups smarts is still in California. Renewable energy is an area where these two wary giants can cooperate—at least initially—and not just compete. “Individual companies are already benefiting by cooperating with a Chinese energy partner,” says Joanna Lewis, an assistant professor of science, technology and foreign affairs at Georgetown University.

That doesn’t mean the road is going to be smooth. There will be competition between the U.S. and China for leadership on clean energy—read Thomas Friedman just about any random Sunday or Wednesday to find out why we’re losing. And there have been credible accusations that China is employing protective trade policies to grow its clean energy industries, at the expense of competitors in America. But even a solar panel trade war between carbon giants might be more fruitful for the world then another round of disappointments on climate diplomacy this December in Mexico.