Charles Zhu

What If the U.S. and China Worked Together to Solve Their Environmental Problems?

China’s beautiful Lijiang River. (Charlie Fong/Wikimedia Commons)

On November 20, ChinaDialogue and Tea Leaf Nation hosted what we believe to be the first live online chat between Chinese and U.S. experts on climate and energy policy. Our experts and readers communicated with each other from across the globe in real-time. In the first session on climate and energy policy, political rhetoric, and the effect of extreme weather, we heard from Martin Bunzl (founder of the Rutgers Initiative on Climate and Social Policy), Tao Wang (resident scholar at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy), Ross Perlin (linguist and author), and Lin Ji (Energy and Climate Change Program Officer at Global Environmental Institute).  Thanks to readers and experts for participating–we’ll be hosting more multimedia and live events soon. Here are some of the highlights of Session 1, with links to resources added by TLN (content of the links are intended to be informative only and do not indicate the opinions of the experts):

On the tendency for narrow, short-term interests to drive long-term policy

Martin Bunzl

Martin Bunzl: “Part of what interests me in my work is the way in which short-term narrow political interests drive the grandest of policies… We came heartbreakingly close to a vote in the US senate a few years ago on a climate bill that had passed our other chamber (the House of Representatives). A key senator made his vote contingent on the President changing his policy on immigration legislation which was causing a problem for the re-election of another senator who was an ally of the first one. The President refused and the climate bill died!… we should not expect policy to be determined by grand considerations. The recent hurricane on the East Coast is now driving policy more than anything else and creating a focus on adjusting the infrastructure to accommodate to the effects of anticipated climate change rather than a focus on diminishing the drivers of climate change itself.”

On the relationship and tension between economic development and climate change

Tao Wang: “Certainly there has been increasing concern over [the effect of China’s economic boom on the environment]…but don’t forget there are still more than 100M people under poverty line.”

Lin Ji: “I think current economic situation is great for China to push for energy and industrial structural adjustment. The on-going financial crisis makes people be more aware of the importance of the real economy.”

Martin Bunzl: “Let me lay my cards on the table: I don’t see how climate change and an interest in a sustained high rate of growth go together…I don’t see the clean energy portfolio growing fast enough… historically the rate of growth of energy intensity does not keep up with the growth of energy consumption as a function of economic growth.”

Ross Perlin: “I agree with Martin, but I think China could be in a position to flatten out its emissions faster than any country in history.”

On the effects of globalization

Martin Bunzl: “I want to mention a fact that is not much recognized: India just contracted to take 8% of the state of Kentucky’s annual coal per year of 25 years. This will be the beginning of a marriage of interests between India and China and coal interests in the United States.”

Tao Wang

Tao Wang: “In fact, better coal from US might reduce life-cycle emissions [when compared] with the domestic dirty coals in China…India bilateral agreement [with the U.S.] could enhance mutual understanding and would certainly be helpful, but there is a concern that a US-Sino agreement might not necessarily be climate friendly.”

On climate adaptation in China and the U.S.

Tao Wang: “The [Chinese] government [has] already done the 2nd edition of climate change adaptation national strategy… There are a lot extreme weather events in China every year, and some also [are being linked] to climate change…There are also a few bilateral collaboration in Chinese provinces to help them better adapt to the changes like the one ACCC project co-funded by UK, Switzerland and China.

Tao Wang: “In China, year on year drought in southwestern China has already caused huge concerns.”

Lin Ji: “Public opinion polls in China show soft public support for climate science and policy action to combat global warming.”

Tao Wang: “To be blunt, I also hope the heavy rainstorms in July and snowstorm in November will remind the government of the vulnerability of our mega cities.”

Martin Bunzl: “The adaption bill for Sandy looks to be in the hundreds of billions.”

Ross Perlin: “…[adaptation policy] is small scale and uncoordinated, but states are finally thinking about their coasts.”

Martin Bunzl: “In the United States the elected officials respond to pressure for short term correction of damages much more than long term adaption…for example, mandating insurance companies to write policies in areas where they don’t want to which leads to coastal rebuilding.”

On frameworks and the usefulness of the U.N. on climate policy moving forward

Martin Bunzl: “The feeling here is that you can’t sidestep the UN but you can do small local agreements – Agreements designed to build mutual trust and confidence.”

Ross Perlin: “…as has happened with “free trade” agreements.”

Tao Wang: “I would not call UN a dead-end process, especially just before they will start to talk about the Durban Platform that will include all emitters for the first for a global deal post 2020… it is late, but it is better than nothing. [A] platform among major players could be very complementary.”

On U.S.-China cooperation on climate change over the coming years

Ross Perlin

Tao Wang: “China needs to get used to the close watch from the other side of Pacific and the more we open and know each other, the less suspicion and fear we will have for each other, and that is the very foundation for mutual trust and collaborations at higher levels.”

Lin Ji: “As the world’s two largest greenhouse gases emitters, China and the US contribute to almost half of global CO2 emissions and therefore are the two most important actors not only in international climate negotiations but also in practical climate mitigation actions.”

On clean technology transfer between China and the U.S.

Ross Perlin: “There’s increasingly significant technology transfer between Silicon Valley and China’s green tech world…the China Energy Group in Berkeley is one example: http://china.lbl.gov… Cutting-edge energy efficiency research at a government-funded lab at UC Berkeley, much of which makes its way to China pretty quickly.”

Lin Ji: “Cooperation at sub-national level between US states and Chinese provinces also exists as regard to technology transfer.”

Ross Perlin: “California and Jiangsu to name one.

On Chinese policy moving forward

Tao Wang: “I don’t think the next 5 years will be hugely different to the plan we already saw. The clean energy plan is actually very ambitious and the new leadership is also heavily involved in the design… what we [are looking for] is whether they could break up the barriers we have encountered so far and make it easier for change. Then we might overshoot this already ambitious target.”

Martin Bunzl: “‘Ambitious’ it might be relative to history but it is not relative to need!…not that the U.S. is any better.”

On U.S. climate policy moving forward

Lin Ji

Ross Perlin: “Only a robust economic recovery and a strong Democratic performance in the 2014 mid-term elections will bring climate change back as a major national concern (combined with continued extreme weather conditions like Hurricane Sandy). Under that scenario—and particularly if other pressing bilateral issues like currency valuation can be overcome—it’s conceivable that the US and China could make something big happen.”

Martin Bunzl: “I can’t emphasize enough how significant natural gas output is going to be in shifting the debate. No more coal plants are being built. And with EPA regs on cars, I think the US is going to claim: ‘we are doing our bit’.”

Some final thoughts

Martin Bunzl: “I will close by saying this: 1. In the short run hope that current interests (China: pollution U.S.: natural gas over coal) harmonize with climate outcomes that are good in the long run. 2: Hope China works harder than the US on the capture of CO2 from the air!”

Tao Wang: “China does recognize the climate change and the need to address it. But like the States, it faces many burning and complicated domestic challenges so it is important for China to build mutual trust and find common ground with international community to strike a good balance there.”

Ross Perlin: “No silver bullet coming any time soon, but we are seeing incremental steps on both sides, more so on the Chinese side perhaps. During his campaign, Obama only raised climate change with young voters, acknowledging a big generation gap on these issues–young people get it. Reason for hope in the coming years, perhaps, but it will likely be too little too late, and so adaptation will become a huge industry and a huge distracting focus in its own right…”

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Charles Zhu

Charles works at an energy and climate change think tank in Washington, D.C, and is a recent graduate of Yale University.