A China-U.S. Partnership on Global Warming

Experts say there is room to collaborate on new technologies.

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Meeting with officials in China last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said little about human rights, a topic on which she has been notably vocal in the past, and instead focused on one of the big hurdles the United States faces in trying to tackle climate change: making sure China cooperates.

Pelosi has been working the U.S. side of the issue on the Hill. The House energy committee recently passed a 900-plus-page, hotly negotiated bill that would require cuts in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions starting in 2012. But the situation abroad is murkier. In December, world leaders will gather in Copenhagen to try to cobble together a new treaty on global greenhouse gas emissions. One key question is how far China and the United States, the world's two biggest energy consumers, will go to cut their pollution.

China says rich, developed countries (which it does not consider itself to be) should cut their emissions by 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. That's unrealistic: Last week's bill called for only a 17 percent cut below 2005 levels. For that matter, China's position on global warming isn't entirely clear. It will not agree to binding emissions cuts, and a 2008 report in Science found that China was building the equivalent of two coal-fired power plants per day. But this divide may not be intractable. "China has staked out a very tough position upfront: We are not going to commit to caps," says Jonathan Adams, assistant director of the Initiative for U.S.-China Cooperation on Energy and Climate. "But it's a position. It doesn't tell you what they are already doing."

Last November, China enacted its own $585 billion stimulus plan, which had tens of billions for energy efficiency and low-carbon rail projects. Since 2006, it has been working—with success—to reduce the amount of energy it consumes per unit of gross domestic product by 20 percent by 2010. And it has readied itself for a boom in low-carbon technologies: It is already a leader in developing advanced nuclear reactor technology and is about to become the world's biggest market for wind power equipment.

Part of the trick in negotiating with the Chinese, experts say, is understanding that they think about emissions in a different way, as "a problem of near-term negative human health," says Mike Davis of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. "When we talk about CO2, the Chinese want to talk about mercury, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and so forth." So, Davis says, there's an opportunity for the two countries to collaborate on new technology for coal-fired power plants that would capture all those pollutants. As Pelosi noted in Beijing, the two countries "have a responsibility to ourselves, to our people, and to the world to work together on this." In response, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao agreed in Copenhagen "to push for positive results," but he offered no new concessions.

Of course, many of those technologies are still decades away. And while the world economy sputters, first-quarter car sales in China hit a record high.