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By Andrew Holland on Apr 25, 2013 with 1 response

U.S. – China Agreement on Climate Shows Promise

Kerry-China

Joint Statement on ‘Dangers’ of Climate Change

A few weeks ago, Secretary of State John Kerry went to Beijing to meet with the leadership of the Chinese government. This meeting was mostly noted in the press as an effort to defuse tensions in the ongoing crisis over North Korea – and clearly that was important; there has been a notable ratcheting down of tensions since then.

However, over the long term, there was an agreement that came out of the meeting that could be much more important to the world’s future stability and security – a joint U.S. – China Statement on Climate Change. It was so overlooked in the press, that I missed it for the last two weeks. The statement indicated that the U.S. and China recognize the “dangers presented by climate change” and that a “more focused and urgent initiative” is needed.

(Related: International Action on Climate Change for Obama’s 2nd Term)

This statement is invariably true – and these two countries are in a position to have an impact. Together, China and the United States are the largest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world, with 29% and 16% of global emissions, respectively. Like Willie Sutton and the Banks, if you want to affect greenhouse gas emissions, start where the emissions actually are.

Mutual Concern About Present Day Impacts

Importantly, the statement notes that the reasons for each country’s mutual concerns about climate change come from the impacts that are already being seen. The statement lists ocean acidification, Arctic sea ice loss, and the “striking incidence of extreme weather events” as reasons for concern about climate. Climate change has moved from being a hypothetical worry in world politics (this will harm us) to an actual threat (this is harming us).

This agreement is important because it will catalyze action by each country at the national level, it will open up areas of cooperation between the two, and it could act as a signal to international negotiations, leading to an ambitious UN agreement.

Formally, the agreement will create a new Climate Change Working Group in the annual U.S. – China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED). The S&ED was the brainchild of then-Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson, with the first one taking place in September, 2006. Over the last six years, the S&EDs have successfully brought together the highest levels of both governments to meet and discuss important areas of the bilateral relationship. Mostly, however, the discussions have focused on economic and trade issues.

Creating a Climate Change Working Group will ensure that the highest levels of government are forced to deal with the problems of climate change.

Forcing Entrenched Bureaucracies to Collaborate

One of the key reasons why this agreement is important is not even the potential areas of cooperation between the countries – it is the action it will generate within each country’s government. In the United States government (I can’t speak with any familiarity about the Chinese government), it will force entrenched bureaucracies to deal with one another on climate and environmental issues. There is often a tendency in government for issues to become ‘stovepiped’ – and on climate, which is pegged as an environmental issue, but is actually a cross-cutting issue of energy, trade, economics, national security, and more, the stovepipes have not worked.

(Related: Why Climate Change is a Matter of National Security)

Since no government agency has taken ownership of it, there has not been enough concerted effort. In Washington, one of the best ways to shake-up the bureaucracy and get things done is to force it to answer questions from an outside agent – in this case senior-level officials from the Chinese Government. Just the very act of preparing for this Climate Change Working Group will have an impact.

Potential Cooperation on Clean Energy

The potential for bilateral cooperation between China and the U.S. on clean energy and pollution controls is vast. Although not directly related to greenhouse gas emissions, traditional pollution in Chinese cities has risen to levels that are dangerous to human health – and probably the number one concern for the general public in China today. The United States has successfully addressed smog in many of our major cities – and the lessons learned could help the Chinese. In clean energy, fights over trade in solar panel production between the countries are harming the deployment of clean technology; smoothing over those disputes could help the deployment of cleaner technology.

Finally, the potential for cooperation to catalyze an agreement is real. With 45% of total global emissions, any joint statement put forward in UN climate negotiations by the U.S. and China would carry great weight. More important, however, is the ability to identify possible areas of disagreement before they become deal-breakers. The disputes between the U.S. delegation and the Chinese delegation in Copenhagen have become fodder for gossip, with reports that a relatively junior Chinese negotiator aggressively lectured President Obama during a side meeting. Proper communication through the S&ED process will prevent that.

(Read More: Why China’s Purchase of a Canadian Oil Company is NOT Harmful to U.S. National Security)

An agreement between China and the United States on how to address climate change would be a major victory for Secretary Kerry. At this point, the statement amounts only to an agreement to discuss, but that could lead to an ambitious agreement down the road.

  1. By ben on April 26, 2013 at 6:44 pm

    the Willie Sutton line! Regrettably, I view the US-China collaboration on climate change as more for (internal) public relations than any likelihood of genuine progress in meeting specific goals. China has real problems to be sure, but the dominant challenge is one of economic requirements/expectations in the caclculating minds of the Party’s leadership. When push comes to shove–and it shall–hungry bellies and commercial interests trump environmental stewardship. While the same may be said of the western powers and, perhaps, that of the US in particular, the truth is that self-governing republics have, on balance, done a better job in striving toward economic growth and sustainability in recent years than that of emerging economies. That should invite less self-congratulation than a simple acknowledgment that we are in a comparatively better posture to make such choices.

    In the years ahead, we will be testing just how far and fast the Asian Tigers and other developing nations will adopt reductions in GHG emissions. I have doubts about the prospects for success. Given recent reports of US progress in achieving greater energy independence largely from fossil fuel resources, the political context for promoting collaboration on the environmental front may prove onerous, if not elusive. Does that mean we shouldn’t try? No. But it may demand an element of Realpolitik; a tact that has never proven one of our historic strengths. Who knows, maybe the absence of quid pro quo will prove an indispensible asset to humanity, if not nationality, in the end. I do sense the majority of the American public residing between our two coasts has precious little patience for global deal-making among the political class. And that logically poses some constraint on the resolve of our leadership in the days ahead.

    Ben

    Ben

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