Roadmap for a U.S.-China Partnership on Climate Change

Fear of competitive harm has for too long stood as an obstacle to strong climate action by the US and China. Closer collaboration can enhance the economic prospects of both nations.
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The U.S. and Chinese governments must start right now to build a stronger partnership on energy and climate change. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to China in February provided a welcome opportunity for the two nations to engage on a range of issues that are of strategic importance. Climate change and energy security were top agenda items for the Secretary's discussions, and here's a vote for keeping them there.

Both issues are of deep concern to the United States and China -- climate change because of the grave economic and environmental risks it poses to the two nations and the world; and energy because of the consequences of our nations' soaring use of fossil fuels both for the climate and for national and global security. As countries prepare for major climate talks in Copenhagen in December, it's critical that the United States and China send clear signals of each country's willingness to take significant climate actions suitable to their respective responsibilities.

A recently released report from the Pew Center on Global Climate Change and the Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations recommends immediate action to create a new, groundbreaking collaboration with China to address the urgent issue of climate change. While some might argue that a decisive response to climate change is impossible in the midst of the current global economic crisis, our report counters that economics favor action, not delay.

Smart investments in alternative energy and other technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions can provide immediate economic stimulus in both the United States and China, while also laying the foundation for a new low-carbon economy that will pay dividends for decades to come. Delaying these investments, on the other hand, will drive up the costs of getting emissions under control and will expose the world's two largest economies to ever-greater risks from the impacts of climate change.

Of course, any partnership between the United States and China on these issues must be built on a shared understanding of the two nations' respective responsibilities and capacities. As the world's largest economy and its largest historic greenhouse gas emitter, the United States must move quickly to reduce its emissions through mandatory national legislation. China's cumulative and per capita emissions are much lower than the United States', and development remains an overriding national priority. But China, too, must deliver an ambitious and effective national effort.

The Pew Center-Asia Society report includes recommendations developed from input from 50 of the world's leading scientists, China experts, and political and business leaders. The report recommends that the leaders of the United States and China convene a summit as soon as possible to launch a new U.S.-China Partnership on Energy and Climate Change. The partnership should focus on five priorities.

First, the United States and China need to work together to develop and deploy new technologies to reduce emissions from the combustion of coal. Continuing to rely heavily on coal for electricity, as both countries are likely to do, is going to require large-scale investment in the demonstration and deployment of new technologies to capture and sequester the resulting carbon emissions. The United States and China must coordinate efforts on a series of commercial-scale demonstration projects for these technologies, while also working with the private sector to increase the efficiency of existing coal-burning power plants.

A second priority for collaboration between the two nations is improving energy efficiency and conservation. Both the United States and China have significant potential to pursue low-cost - and in some cases, no-cost -- actions to conserve energy and improve efficiency. Key recommendations here are to share best practices and policy experience at the national and state levels; to work with the private sector to encourage efficiency improvements throughout the supply chain; and to lead an effort to forge an agreement among major auto-producing countries promoting a new generation of high-efficiency vehicles.

Third, China and the United States need to work together to bring our electricity systems into the 21st century through smart-grid technologies. Both countries have huge untapped potential for wind and solar power. An advanced, efficient electric power grid is crucial to ensuring that these renewable energy sources are brought on line.

As a fourth priority, the two countries need to take other steps to promote renewable energy. Wind, solar and other renewables are the key to a clean, domestic, diversified energy supply for both the United States and China. Key recommendations here are joint research and development initiatives focused on solar, storage and biofuels technologies.

And fifth, the Pew Center-Asia Society report identifies two cross-cutting issues as especially ripe for U.S.-China collaboration. One is improving our ability to measure, monitor and verify emissions and emission reductions. The other is overcoming barriers to the freer flow of technology, including finance, tariffs, and intellectual property concerns.

Fear of competitive harm has for too long stood as an obstacle to strong climate action by the United States and China. If fashioned carefully, however, closer collaboration can enhance the economic prospects of both nations while giving neither an unfair competitive advantage.

A new partnership between the United States and China also can lay the groundwork for a strong multilateral climate agreement that engages all nations in the work of protecting the global climate. There is no good reason to delay, and every good reason to get started.

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