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Can Cooperation on Climate Change Transcend the Challenges of U.S.-China Relations?

The relationship between the U.S. and China is fraught with tension, yet it has never been more important for the two countries to work together to solve climate change. The U.S. and China account for around 40 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Fortunately, despite difficulties in other aspects of the bilateral relationship, the two countries are cooperating on climate in a myriad of ways that often fly under the radar.

“I have heard from colleagues in the U.S. government that not only is climate change a bright spot, but climate change is the bright spot, and perhaps the only bright spot in the relationship,” said Barbara Finamore, Senior Attorney and Asia Director at Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), in Reinvent’s recent video conversation.

In the last ten years, China has made great progress in the fight against climate change, including reducing coal consumption for the last two years in a row, after a decade of annual growth of eight percent or more. Mark Clifford, Executive Director of the Asia Business Council, pointed out that while China didn’t make its first wind turbine until the new millennium, it is now one of the the top wind power producing countries in the world (according to 2015 estimates, China ranks first and the U.S. ranks second).

Eighteen months ago, China committed to peaking its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 or earlier. This is especially significant, according to Orville Schell, Arthur Ross Director of the Center on US-China Relations at the Asia Society, considering that just ten to fifteen years ago, “there was some circumspection in China that the climate change argument was a plot to slow down China’s growth.”

While the agreement that came out of Paris this December is the most prominent example of U.S.-China cooperation on climate, American and Chinese corporations, scientists, and cities continue to work together in ways that often get much less attention. We highlighted a few such examples below.


The U.S.-China Climate Change Working Group facilitates dialogue behind the scenes.

The success of COP21, according to Finamore, was due in part to years of work prior to the conference building China’s clean energy capacity. Many of these efforts were led by the U.S.-China Climate Change Working Group, established in 2013 during Secretary of State John Kerry’s first trip to China.

The group had two purposes, Finamore said—first, bringing together experts on seven to eight different areas, including heavy-duty vehicles and low-carbon cities, and second, conducting an enhanced dialogue on climate between the official climate negotiators. According to Finamore, these “behind-the-scenes” discussions helped the negotiators find common ground in advance of COP21.

The U.S. and China conduct joint research and share intellectual property.

The U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center, which is led by the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and includes the NRDC, in addition to multiple corporations, was renewed for another five years in November 2014 and given additional funding. “Its purpose is to bring researchers together from both countries to work on three concrete issues: energy efficiency, electric vehicles, and carbon capture and sequestration,” Finamore said. According to Finamore, the researchers share the intellectual property from their joint research.

Deborah Seligsohn, an environmental governance researcher at the University of California, San Diego, pointed out that bilateral research can transcend rocky relationships between governments. “The clean energy research centers that were a huge initiative of the Obama administration now have $150 million worth of joint research between them,” said Seligsohn. “I think it’s important to realize that there’s a lot there that isn’t that dependent on relations at the top.”

Reinventing Fire: China is working to help China increase its energy productivity by 1100 percent by 2050.

Clay Stranger, the Founding Project Manager for Reinventing Fire: China at the Rocky Mountain Institute, works with the Chinese government to maximize China’s energy efficiency. “In terms of where China can go next,” Stranger said, “part of the work of Reinventing Fire is to lay a pathway in which there aren’t a lot of sacrifices that China has to make in terms of its overall economic performance—in fact, none whatsoever. What we’ve found is that by 2050, China can increase its carbon productivity by 600 percent and its energy productivity by 1100 percent, compared to 2010 levels, and do so while it grows its economy 600 percent.”

Other projects coordinated by Reinventing Fire: China include an “Uber-like” app for Chinese freight logistics which aims to reduce the number of empty trucks on the road, and an analysis of the economic viability of coal plants. Reinventing Fire’s research suggests that newly constructed coal plants in China will have a maximum cost-effective operating lifetime of eight to twelve years. By 2025, Stranger said, wind and solar power will become cheaper than coal in China. Reinventing Fire, as well as other organizations, are working to bridge the gap in the meantime.

The U.S. and China have made a number of climate agreements in addition to the Paris agreement.  

According to Finamore, there are four steps the U.S. and China should take immediately, all of which involve previously agreed upon goals: reducing hydrochlorofluorocarbons, phasing out fossil fuel subsidies, limiting public money for high carbon-emitting foreign projects overseas, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the aviation sector.

Doubling down on climate change efforts is essential if we’re going to keep the average global temperature increase to two degrees Celsius, said Isabel Hilton, CEO and Editor of chinadialogue. “It’s very, very important that this relationship be built across as wide a base as possible. If the government to government relationship should falter for any reason, it is terribly important that cooperation on a practical level continues to function. My big worry about climate change is that the world is very easily distracted by other things, like the financial crisis in 2009. We don’t have time to waste at this point.”

Chinese and American mayors and governors meet annually to work on climate issues. 

“I’m finding hope in the ongoing commitment between the U.S. and China to pursue city-level cooperation on climate issues,” said Stranger. “The National Development and Reform Commission in China has founded the Alliance of Peaking Pioneer Cities (APPC). They’ve committed to an annual meeting with a set of mayors from U.S. cities and governors from U.S. states to join with their Chinese counterparts to track progress, to describe best practices, and to distill the key strategies that are working.”

The theme of cooperation between researchers, mayors, corporations—any and all entities underneath the highest echelon of the federal government—resurfaced many times during our video conversation. “It sounds fairly basic,” Stranger said of city-level cooperation, “but that level of best-practice sharing and the accountability that’s associated with making these commitments in the presence of other city leaders, and meeting annually to track them, is encouraging.”

The work that NGOs, local governments, researchers, and corporations are doing to advance climate collaboration between the U.S. and China is of the utmost importance. “We can’t afford not to do this, not to get this right,” said Clifford. “As Orville said, we have a shared interest in the planet. We only have one planet. Our two countries are responsible for about half of the problem. If we get it right, there’s hope for humanity. If we don’t, all bets are off.”