China and U.S. Try Cooperation on Climate, Energy Policy

Obama pledged to make climate change a focus of America's relationship with China.

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When President Obama took office last year, two of his top priorities were stronger action to stem global warming and a more collaborative, cooperative approach to solving international problems. By making climate change a primary focus in America's relationship with China—the two countries are the world's top two polluters—the president sought to accomplish two goals in a single stroke. "The Obama administration is the first U.S. administration to make climate change a 'top three' issue with China," says Joanna Lewis, a professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service who studies U.S.-­Chinese energy relations.

The logic of U.S.-Chinese cooperation on climate change is manifold. The two countries are the world's largest energy producers, energy consumers, and carbon emitters, combining to account for 40 percent of the greenhouse gases emitted globally each year. By working together, the United States and China could accomplish more than if they proceeded independently. For example, the costs of developing and implementing alternative energy and emissions-reduction technologies are high. But if the two nations pursue them jointly, the collaboration could create economies of scale that would drive prices down. In addition, business and political interests in both countries are reluctant to assume the costs of reducing emissions while their competitors across the Pacific continue unimpeded. Cooperation could help both sides take politically difficult steps. [Read America's New Energy Dependency: China's Metals.]

A collaboration on clean energy also could be a steppingstone to building a better overall relationship between the two nations. "In solving the world's energy problems, having China and the U.S. work together can make a big difference," says David Sandalow, assistant secretary of energy for policy and international affairs, who heads the government's energy outreach efforts with China. "Cooperation on clean energy can be a foundation for a broader bilateral relationship and can contribute positively to the relationship overall."

In November, during Obama's visit to China, the two countries took several steps in that direction. They signed agreements to put more electric vehicles on roads, to use renewable energy sources such as wind and solar more widely, and to establish a U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center to develop green technologies.

But questions remain about whether the two countries are willing to back up their rhetoric with serious funding. "The agreements are a good place to start," Lewis says. But "it's unclear where the financial support to carry out the mandates in these agreements is going to come from."

Clean coal. Also conspicuously absent was an initiative regarding so-called clean coal. The economies of both countries rely heavily on coal. China uses it for 80 percent of its primary energy supply, and the United States uses coal for 50 percent of its electricity supply. Because those percentages are not likely to change in the short term, finding ways to limit pollution from coal plants would be essential for the nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. In particular, there are high hopes for carbon capture and storage technologies. CCS traps carbon dioxide from coal plants before it enters the atmosphere and deposits it somewhere harmless, like underground or even in carbonated soft drinks.

Clean coal technology is in its infancy, however, and needs large-scale government investments to jump-start development, experts say. And unlike other climate-saving efforts, such as conservation and improvements in energy efficiency, which provide significant cost savings, CCS adds to the cost of producing coal power. That makes it a hard sell. "It's a huge sink of money and has long-term benefits but no short-term benefits," Lewis says. "But it's also one of the most crucial [technologies] to dealing with climate change." And because of the cost, "if we're going to do it, we want China to do it as well."