U.S.-China Effort Key to Climate

U.S.-China cooperation is key to progress on climate change, policy groups say.
By Michael Lelyveld
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BOSTON--The United States and China must set aside differences and cooperate to fight climate change, major environmental and foreign policy groups said last week in a joint report.

"That our planet is now approaching a point of no return on the question of global warming is increasingly self-evident," said the study by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change and the Asia Society.

"Simply put, if these two countries cannot find ways to bridge the long-standing divide on this issue, there will literally be no solution."

Chinese experts and officials, including Zhou Dadi of the National Energy Leading Group, contributed to the study. The Chinese People's Institute for Foreign Affairs also provided sponsorship and assistance, the Asia Society said.

Washington and Beijing have been at odds for years over approaches to controlling pollutants that cause global warming.

Last October, China argued in a white paper that industrialized nations caused 77 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions in the second half of the last century. Beijing believes that curbing its development now would be unfair.

On its side, the United States has argued that global emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) cannot be controlled without major efforts from China.

In November, the Paris-based International Energy Agency said China has already passed the United States as the world's largest energy user and will account for nearly half of the CO2 increase over the next 20 years.

Strategic challenges

But in their "roadmap" for U.S.-China cooperation, authors of the new study argue that the two countries must move beyond blame to fight global warming.

"China and the United States face similar strategic challenges in seeking to strengthen energy security, combat climate change, and ensure economic growth and prosperity," the study said.

"However, neither can fully meet these challenges--nor can the world--without the full engagement of the other."

The two countries together account for over 40 percent of all emissions, it said.

In a speech to the Asia Society in New York on Feb. 13, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signaled support for cooperation, pledging to "create partnerships ... and other strategies that simultaneously protect the environment and promote economic growth."

In a Radio Free Asia interview, Pew Center president Eileen Claussen said that without cooperation on climate change, the world faces dire consequences. The United Nations has estimated that 2 billion people could face water shortages from temperature rises in this century under current trends.

"It's one of the most intractable and difficult problems that the world faces, and if we don't do something about it, we're really in for some very difficult times," said Claussen. "I think the imperative to act is here."

New policies

Claussen believes that new policies will be forthcoming from the administration of President Barack Obama to help break the impasse over who should go first.

"That plus some real on-the-ground cooperation could actually make the difference," she said. "Without the two of us--China and the United States--we will not address this problem."

The study urges a presidential summit to launch a partnership on energy and climate change, followed by formation of a high-level council and task forces for joint programs.

It also outlines five areas for collaboration, including low-emissions coal technologies, conservation, electric grid modernization, renewable energy, and finance.

Joanna Lewis, research director for the study and an assistant professor at Georgetown University, said collaboration is the key to ending the standoff over global warming emissions.

"It's hard for any one country to justify to its own constituents that they should be the only ones taking action on climate change, since this is a global problem," Lewis told RFA.

"We have a very good opportunity right now with the recent change in administration to launch a new era of cooperation," said Lewis. "We have a president in the U.S. who has put this at the top of his agenda."

Reliance on coal

Critics have cited China's heavy reliance on coal as a major cause of the CO2 problem. Last year, the country produced 2.7 billion tons of coal, 2.3 times more than the United States. China uses coal for 80 percent of its power, or double the U.S. share.

But the study accepts that both countries will continue to rely on coal, making it critical to develop technologies for dealing with the global warming effects.

"Trying to tell the Chinese that they can't use coal, when there's enormous demand for electricity throughout the country, I think is a nonstarter," said Claussen. "It would be very hard for the United States not to use coal, either."

Even with all the alternative energy sources that environmental groups want to promote, coal will remain as a major problem to be addressed.

"The most important thing is to figure out, once and for all, how to burn coal so that it doesn't harm the planet," Claussen said.

One problem is that solutions depend on developing "carbon capture and storage," a process of separating, compressing, and pumping CO2 into underground caverns. While the concept has shown promise, the technology remains unproven and largely unpredictable.

"I don't think anyone knows when or if carbon capture and storage will work at a commercial scale and reasonable price," said Michael Levi, senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations, who contributed to the study.

Levi said there are many steps China can take in the meantime to slow the growth of emissions, like improving efficiency, reducing demand and switching to cleaner fuels.

But, he says, "If we can't make carbon capture and sequestration work, we've got a lot of trouble."

China has shown reluctance to embrace carbon capture technology because it would require more energy to implement, as well as more cost, said Lewis. But Claussen said major components of the technology have been tested and could be developed within a decade.

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