Joshua Kucera

The logic of U.S.-Chinese cooperation on climate change is manifold. The two countries are the world's largest energy producers, energy consumers, and carbon emitters, combining to account for 40 percent of the greenhouse gases emitted globally each year. By working together, the United States and China could accomplish more than if they proceeded independently. For example, the costs of developing and implementing alternative energy and emissions-reduction technologies are high. But if the two nations pursue them jointly, the collaboration could create economies of scale that would drive prices down. In addition, business and political interests in both countries are reluctant to assume the costs of reducing emissions while their competitors across the Pacific continue unimpeded. Cooperation could help both sides take politically difficult steps.

A collaboration on clean energy also could be a steppingstone to building a better overall relationship between the two nations. "In solving the world's energy problems, having China and the U.S. work together can make a big difference," says David Sandalow, assistant secretary of energy for policy and international affairs, who heads the government's energy outreach efforts with China. "Cooperation on clean energy can be a foundation for a broader bilateral relationship and can contribute positively to the relationship overall."

During Obama's visit to China, the two countries took several steps in that direction. They signed agreements to put more electric vehicles on roads, to use renewable energy sources such as wind and solar more widely, and to establish a U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center to develop green technologies.

But questions remain about whether the two countries are willing to back up their rhetoric with serious funding. "The agreements are a good place to start," Lewis says. But "it's unclear where the financial support to carry out the mandates in these agreements is going to come from."

Clean coal.

Also conspicuously absent was an initiative regarding so-called clean coal. The economies of both countries rely heavily on coal. China uses it for 80 percent of its primary energy supply, and the United States uses coal for 50 percent of its electricity supply. Because those percentages are not likely to change in the short term, finding ways to limit pollution from coal plants would be essential for the nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. In particular, there are high hopes for carbon capture and storage technologies. CCS traps carbon dioxide from coal plants before it enters the atmosphere and deposits it somewhere harmless, like underground or even in carbonated soft drinks.

Clean coal technology is in its infancy, however, and needs large-scale government investments to jump-start development, experts say. And unlike other climate-saving efforts, such as conservation and improvements in energy efficiency, which provide significant cost savings, CCS adds to the cost of producing coal power. That makes it a hard sell. "It's a huge sink of money and has long-term benefits but no short-term benefits," Lewis says. "But it's also one of the most crucial [technologies] to dealing with climate change." And because of the cost, "if we're going to do it, we want China to do it as well."

Clean coal would seem to be a natural fit for a U.S.-China collaboration, but the cost considerations are still somewhat prohibitive, Sandalow says. "The financing of such a project is an unsolved problem at this point," he says, noting that the cost would be in the "tens of millions." "I predict that we'll see projects like that in China in the years ahead, but discussions about how to finance it are ongoing," he says.

China's overwhelming reliance on coal and need to continue to develop its economy make it reluctant to agree to emissions reductions. That's why a CCS demonstration project is so important, says Kelly Gallagher, a professor of energy and environmental policy at Tufts University and author of a report on U.S.-Chinese cooperation on coal and CCS. "The Chinese are not going to be able to seriously reduce their greenhouse gas emissions or commit in an international policy context to do that until they understand if CCS is going to be an option for them," Gallagher says. It would take between 5 and 10 years to see if CCS is commercially viable, she says. "And we're running out of time from a climate change point of view."

U.S.-China cooperation on climate change took a hit during the December climate meeting in Copenhagen, where the countries' conference representatives were able to agree only on vague, watered-down guidelines. Other nations blamed the lack of global progress at the meeting on the intransigence of the two economic giants. A particular source of tension was the public refusal by the United States to help fund climate change adaptation and mitigation projects in China, even though previous agreements had called for that sort of aid. "We would intend to direct our public dollars to the neediest countries, and China, to its great credit, has a dynamic economy that has led it to sit on trillions of dollars in reserves," the U.S. special envoy for climate change, Todd Stern, said at the talks. "So we don't think China would be the first candidate for public funding."

Green politics.

Such difficulties underscore the importance of bilateral agreements between the United States and China, says Lewis. "The cooperation on clean energy is much less politicized than the multilateral discussions," she says. "It's really in both the U.S.'s and China's interests." Sandalow agrees: "Copenhagen was a negotiation, and these big multilateral negotiations can be difficult. But that's just one forum for making progress on these issues."

Of course, even green energy cooperation is political. Controversy erupted last year when the developer of a wind farm in Texas sought $450 million in federal stimulus money to help buy wind turbines from a Chinese manufacturer rather than an American one. After the criticism, the Chinese company announced it would build a turbine plant in the United States. As cooperation and trade between the two countries expand, those sorts of conflicts have the potential to increase. "These are the two biggest emitters in the world, but they're also in a race to capture the huge new growth industry of clean energy," says Rachel Cleetus, a climate economist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

But working together in the research and development stages, as envisioned in the recently announced projects, would allow scientists from the two countries to advance the technology before it gets to the stage of commercial competition, Cleetus adds. That would give companies from both countries a leg up in the world market -- and could help save the planet in the process.






Environment - Side by Side in Need for Green Growth: China and America try cooperation | Joshua Kucera