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Reengaging China on Climate Change - Some Recommendations


If you've picked up a paper, listened to a radio program, watched a TV program, or read a policy paper on global warming recently you would surely have heard that China and the US are the two biggest sources of global warming pollution -- accounting for over 40% of global CO2 emissions from fossil fuels. And that the path that these two players take to address global warming is one of the keys to either sustainability or catastrophe.

Lack of movement to address global warming in either country has been used as a rationale for lack of action by the other side -- some US policymakers have suggested the US can't move forward if China isn't moving as well and vice versa. Some have even called this a "suicide pact".

The time for excuses and finger point is over. After all, we have 10 months to get a strong international agreement in Copenhagen to move the world away from the brink and towards a sustainable path.

Secretary of State Clinton is going to China later this week and global warming will be on her agenda. This is a great sign that the new Administration is going to make engagement with China on these issues a priority as they didn't get the attention in the US-China dialogue over the last 8 years that they need.

While the issues surrounding US and China on global warming are pretty evident, what to do about this dilemma is less than obvious. What should the US and China engage on after this initial trip from Secretary Clinton?

Well our China Program (we have about 20 people working full-time in Beijing) and our climate team decided to put together a set of detailed recommendations for how the US and China should engage on climate change and energy now that there are new opportunities in both countries (see for example: Changing Climate in China?; President-elect Obama Signals He Will Restore American Leadership on Global Warming; and China and the US: Sticking to a truly "green" stimulus).

In a set of recommendations (a sort of "street map" with a clear guide) -- Strengthening US-China Climate Change and Energy Engagement: Recommendations for Leaders and Policymakers in the US and China -- we outline a nine step plan that these two countries can do to fast-track a massive reengagement on global warming and energy issues and increase the likelihood of a strong agreement in Copenhagen.

Many of these recommendations are successful things that our China Program is already doing on-the-ground in various parts of China. They take the opportunities and stumbling blocks that our experience in China and the international negotiations has seen first hand and accelerates and deepens existing efforts.

I'll spare you the details of all the recommendations (so you actually read them), but here are the main themes:

  1. Engage in serious bilateral meetings on climate change and address the key sticking points to reach meaningful agreement in Copenhagen in December 2009
  2. Establish a US-China forum on climate change strategies that promote green jobs and economic recovery
  3. Mobilize the untapped potential of energy efficiency
  4. Assist in the deployment of renewable energy sources and technologies
  5. Promote low-carbon, high-efficiency vehicles, fuels, transportation systems, and community development
  6. Expand research and investment on carbon capture and storage technology
  7. Improve greenhouse gas emissions monitoring and data transparency
  8. Conduct co-benefit analysis on GHG emissions controls
  9. Invest in regular exchanges and sharing of expertise to improve enforcement of environmental law and energy efficiency standards

All of these are essential for putting these two countries on a path to addressing global warming, but let me highlight a couple that I think are really important for the international global warming negotiations (my colleagues Barbara Finamore and Alex Wang will provide more insights on other key elements).

Engage in serious bilateral meetings on climate change and address the key sticking points to reaching a meaningful agreement in Copenhagen in December 2009. President Obama and President Hu Jintao should discuss global warming at their first bilateral meeting, preferably to be held in February or March of 2009. This meeting should kick-start a series of high-level bilateral discussions throughout 2009 on the concrete steps that the US and China can undertake to reduce their global warming pollution now and in the future, and the key sticking points that need to be overcome for both parties to sign on to a meaningful international climate change agreement in Copenhagen. Is Secretary Clinton laying the groundwork for such a dialogue? Let's hope!

This high-level dialogue needs to be more than just broad declarations, press releases, and photo-ops, but a "roll-up" their sleeves process to get into the details of the tricky issues. They could start with a couple of things that keep coming up in the negotiations and that need an agreed path forward:

    • The Chinese government's desire for greater access to cleaner, more efficient technologies;
    • The US desire to export green technologies while maintaining intellectual property rights;
    • The need for both countries to commit to measurable, reportable, verifiable, and appropriate reductions in GHG emissions; and
    • The role of sectoral approaches where specific emission reduction actions are taken in key sectors of the economy, such as electricity and major energy-intensive industrial sectors (as I've discussed here and here).


Any structures agreed upon in these bilateral discussions should be brought into the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), as this bilateral engagement is meant to support, not replace, the UNFCCC.

Improve greenhouse gas emissions monitoring and data transparency. Improving the transparency, quality, and frequency of GHG emissions inventories will be a cornerstone of a strong international climate agreement to be reached in Copenhagen so making significant headway on this debate will be necessary.

Invest in improved enforcement. Willingness and a strong capability to implement actions on the ground to reduce global warming pollution will be a key building block to a strong international effort. After all, domestic action and enforcement is a critical element of all international agreements.

A Brighter Future for US and China on Global Warming?

The US and China are at a crucial juncture in how they are going to shape their economies, position their companies and technologies for the 21st century, and address global warming. Action must be taken in both countries immediately if these countries and the world are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Fortunately there are huge opportunities for those countries and companies that lead.

Implementation of these recommendations by themselves will not solve the global warming challenge. And taking these actions won't address all the challenges of getting a strong international agreement to address global warming. But they can make a huge down payment.


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Jake Schmidt is the International Climate Policy Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council where he helps to develop the post-2012 international response to climate change (for more information see his blog).