A US-China Climate Surge

LIVERMORE, CALIFORNIA – There are numerous aspects to the United States-China relationship – some currently contentious, others cooperative. One area that presents an opportunity for cooperation is energy policy and climate change, because the two countries’ account for more than 50% of total coal consumption, while their combined share of both global greenhouse-gas emissions and the world economy is 40%.

LIVERMORE, CALIFORNIA – There are numerous aspects to the United States-China relationship – some currently contentious, others cooperative. One area that presents an opportunity for cooperation is energy policy and climate change, because the two countries’ account for more than 50% of total coal consumption, while their combined share of both global greenhouse-gas emissions and the world economy is 40%.

If an international agreement to protect the world’s climate is to be reached, much greater action to reduce CO2 emissions will be needed on the part of the US, as well as  binding commitments on China’s part to reduce its carbon burden.

Ultimately, though, without US-China cooperation, a global climate agreement will be held hostage. That is why a US-China standoff is a worldwide problem.

China has engaged only very reluctantly in the global effort to bring down overall emissions. The US Congress’s deep reservations regarding the passage of a climate bill has been exacerbated by China’s positions, especially on issues such as international monitoring and accountability for its emissions, which China considers an affront to its sovereignty.

But make no mistake: despite its less-than-constructive role in multilateral efforts, China is not just sitting still on energy and environmental issues.

Within the next ten years, China will build 100,000 megawatts of wind-power generation plants (10 times the US amount), 50,000 MW of nuclear capacity, 10,000 MW of solar photovoltaic power, and 10,000 MW of solar thermal power.

Moreover, China will cut its energy intensity by 40% and is investing $440 billion in clean-energy technology, as well as $9 billion per month in energy R&D. The Chinese are testing on a grand scale novel technologies in coal conversion, solar, wind, and carbon sequestration.

These efforts dwarf expected US initiatives. Nevertheless, in the near future, China also will build 500,000 MW of coal-fired power plants (more than the entire existing US stock), at great risk to the global atmosphere and environment.

The harsh mathematics of greenhouse gas accumulations in the atmosphere simply does not allow for another lost decade.

To get past these challenges this decade, the world – and especially the US – must create a strong and sustaining partnership with China concerning emissions reduction.

This can best be achieved through institutional relationships based on trust, as well as deep understanding of each other’s needs and capabilities.

The Obama/Hu meetings in Washington appear to have improved the atmosphere for the ongoing discussions on climate.

But, given the two countries’ direct and stiff competition in energy technology, taking advantage of this will require them also to find new ways to coalesce around joint goals for atmospheric stabilization, even as they seek to meet their own undeniable national needs.

In short, what is needed is a massive, joint initiative in innovation, applied science, development, and demonstration.

The US component should involve a new, sustained campaign for clean-energy development that involves large and small companies, national laboratories, universities, and non-governmental organizations (a sustained and expanded version of the Department of Energy’s energy investments under Obama’s stimulus legislation).

The object should be to accelerate and vet the next generation of clean-energy technologies, as well as to meet the level of demand reductions that will be necessary to reduce greenhouse-gas pollution.

While expensive, such an initiative would help give companies and banks the surety they need to invest the capital that these emerging technologies require.

If so stimulated, the domestic energy market for cheap, low-carbon energy would be a massive force multiplier in the US – or any – economy.

A US initiative that is not assured of gaining government support would be insufficient, and only if the US forms a partnership with China would adequate scale and speed be attained to meet the challenge.

For the reality is that China will build its “nth” plant before the US builds its first. This means that US groups, institutions, and even government agencies must begin sharing with – and sometimes even funding – Chinese companies and organizations.

Such partnerships would cut by half the cost and time of experimenting and learning for the US, while avoiding redundancy and waste.

The cost of this effort would be a fraction of what the US would spend on even a single large-scale demonstration project.

But, perhaps more importantly in the long run, it would create the framework of collaboration and trust that is required if the world is to achieve a larger global climate agreement.

The international energy-technology market is brutal and competitive. Every country must selfishly use a surge strategy to gain advantage.

But the global environment will not respond to isolated national efforts alone. It requires new and deeper forms of collaboration, and the US and China are the most important pieces in the larger mosaic that needs to be assembled.

S. Julio Friedmann is leader of the Carbon Management Program at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2010.

www.project-syndicate.org

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