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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Clean coal would seem to be a natural fit for a U.S.-China collaboration, but the cost considerations are still somewhat prohibitive, Sandalow says. "The financing of such a project is an unsolved problem at this point," he says, noting that the cost would be in the "tens of millions." "I predict that we'll see projects like that in China in the years ahead, but discussions about how to finance it are ongoing," he says.

China's overwhelming reliance on coal and need to continue to develop its economy make it reluctant to agree to emissions reductions. That's why a CCS demonstration project is so important, says Kelly Gallagher, a professor of energy and environmental policy at Tufts University and author of a report on U.S.-Chinese cooperation on coal and CCS. "The Chinese are not going to be able to seriously reduce their greenhouse gas emissions or commit in an international policy context to do that until they understand if CCS is going to be an option for them," Gallagher says. It would take between 5 and 10 years to see if CCS is commercially viable, she says. "And we're running out of time from a climate change point of view."

U.S.-China cooperation on climate change took a hit during the December climate meeting in Copenhagen, where the countries' conference representatives were able to agree only on vague, ­watered-down guidelines. Other nations blamed the lack of global progress at the meeting on the intransigence of the two economic giants. A particular source of tension was the public refusal by the United States to help fund climate change adaptation and mitigation projects in China, even though previous agreements had called for that sort of aid. "We would intend to direct our public dollars to the neediest countries, and China, to its great credit, has a dynamic economy that has led it to sit on trillions of dollars in reserves," the U.S. special envoy for climate change, Todd Stern, said at the talks. "So we don't think China would be the first candidate for public funding."

Green politics. Such difficulties underscore the importance of bilateral agreements between the United States and China, says Lewis. "The cooperation on clean energy is much less politicized than the multilateral discussions," she says. "It's really in both the U.S.'s and China's interests." Sandalow agrees: "Copenhagen was a negotiation, and these big multilateral negotiations can be difficult. But that's just one forum for making progress on these issues."

Of course, even green energy cooperation is political. Controversy erupt­ed last year when the developer of a wind farm in Texas sought $450 million in federal stimulus money to help buy wind turbines from a Chinese manufacturer rather than an American one. After the criticism, the Chinese company announced it would build a turbine plant in the United States. As cooperation and trade between the two countries expand, those sorts of conflicts have the potential to increase. "These are the two biggest emitters in the world, but they're also in a race to capture the huge new growth industry of clean energy," says Rachel Cleetus, a climate economist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

But working together in the research and development stages, as envisioned in the recently announced projects, would allow scientists from the two countries to advance the technology before it gets to the stage of commercial competition, Cleetus adds. That would give companies from both countries a leg up in the world market—and could help save the planet in the process.

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