文章 Articles

New hope for climate cooperation

Barack Obama’s presidency offers a unique chance for China and the United States to cooperate on environmental issues. Zhang Haibin explains why.

Article image

What impact will Barack Obama’s presidency have on climate-change cooperation between the United States and China? Will the level of cooperation move forward, continue as is, or go backwards?

I believe that greater cooperation is the most likely outcome, as Obama’s inauguration on January 20 will cause key factors hampering energy and climate agreements to weaken.

China-US cooperation in the energy and climate fields started in the late 1970s. In the past three decades, almost 40 bilateral agreements have been signed. Although there have been a few achievements, the majority of those agreements have not yielded impressive results. Cooperation between China and the United States appears limited when compared with that between China and the European Union and China and Japan. There is no lack of ability for China and the United States to work together – but the will to do so has been absent, in particular in the United States.

In the past eight years of George W Bush’s presidency, climate change has not been a priority. In 2001, Bush announced US withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol, thereby holding back global efforts on climate change and earning worldwide condemnation. The United States also has not given climate change priority in bilateral relations with China. The European Union and Japan both proposed joint statements on climate change, demonstrating their intention to work together. The only major western country not to sign a similar agreement with China is the United States. Although 2008 saw the signing of the US-China 10-Year Energy and Environment Cooperation Framework as part of the Strategic Economic Dialogue process, the document lacked any concrete goals.

During the presidential campaign, Obama repeatedly emphasised the importance of energy and the environment. He pledged to reverse the unilateral climate policies of the Bush administration and to rebuild the United States’ reputation.

In a conversation with Chinese president Hu Jintao, Obama specifically expressed hope for more cooperation on climate issues. A number of US think tanks have produced detailed plans to achieve this aim for the Obama administration. All the signs indicate that the new US government will raise the importance of energy and environmental issues in the China-US relationship.

Also worth noting is the increased political appetite in China for international cooperation on climate change, including making agreements with the United States. China’s cooperative attitude at the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, Indonesia, met with widespread praise. Also in 2007, the Report to the 17th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party listed protection of the global environment as a goal for Chinese diplomacy.

In 2008, the Communist Party Political Bureau held its first discussions on climate change, with Hu Jintao stressing that climate change is of great importance both now and for future generations. These major changes in China’s climate change politics show that there is increasing political will for cooperation with the United States, which hopefully will match up with similar aims of the Obama government and provide new impetus for climate-change partnership between the two countries.

Mutual finger-pointing held back further cooperation. The Clinton administration’s signing of the Kyoto Protocol in 1998 indicated an acceptance of China’s stance on common but differentiated responsibilities. However, domestic political circumstances meant that the US Congress did not ratify the protocol.

A decade later there have been huge changes. The American public is much more aware and concerned about climate change, and US firms are eyeing the commercial opportunities presented by development of low-carbon technology. The new government urgently needs to promote international cooperation on climate change in order to improve the country’s image. Overall, the domestic voices calling for the United States to play a leading role in international climate change cooperation are getting louder. Obama himself is also enthusiastic.

Meanwhile, China is coming under greater international pressure because of increasing greenhouse-gas emissions. It is very likely that after Obama’s inauguration the United States and China will reach a compromise, with the United States committing to quantifiable reductions and China making a voluntary commitment to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. If differences over common but differentiated responsibilities can be reduced, then significant advances will be possible.

Of course, none of these changes can be accomplished easily – many unknown quantities and uncertainties remain. The ongoing financial crisis will undoubtedly have a negative impact. Obama has made it clear that his first priority will be the rescue of the US economy. Meanwhile China has passed a 4 trillion yuan (US$586 billion) economic stimulus plan, giving full priority to combating the financial crisis. With both countries focusing on economic issues, there will naturally be less attention paid to energy and the environment, so progress on climate cooperation will be slower.

To a great degree, climate cooperation will depend on the ability of the two nations to recover from these economic problems. A lack of mutual trust also is an issue. In the United States, there are worries that cooperation will reduce the international competitiveness of American companies and therefore increase unemployment – potentially changing the US lifestyle. In China, many believe that the United States is using climate change as an excuse to hold back China’s peaceful development. Both sides worry that they will lose out by cooperating. 

China and the United States have a common interest in climate-change issues, and there is a huge potential for cooperation. If cooperation on energy and climate change is possible, it will become the bright spot of China-US relations and provide mutual understanding and trust -- an anchor for ensuring long-term stable relationships. But if progress is not made, it will become a source of mutual doubt and conflict.

The new US administration is soon to come into power, and a historic opportunity is presenting itself. Both the United States and China must seize this chance to sign a joint statement on climate change as soon as possible and produce a concrete plan for bilateral cooperation. As two of the world’s biggest energy consumers and greenhouse-gas producers, the United States and China – through mutual cooperation – can benefit not just their own citizens, but also all of humanity.

Zhang Haibin is an associate professor at Peking University’s School of International Studies. His major research areas are global environmental politics and international organisations.

Homepage photo by yunheisapunk


Now more than ever…

chinadialogue is at the heart of the battle for truth on climate change and its challenges at this critical time.

Our readers are valued by us and now, for the first time, we are asking for your support to help maintain the rigorous, honest reporting and analysis on climate change that you value in a 'post-truth' era.

Support chinadialogue

发表评论 Post a comment

评论通过管理员审核后翻译成中文或英文。 最大字符 1200。

Comments are translated into either Chinese or English after being moderated. Maximum characters 1200.

评论 comments

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


奥巴马就任之前的言论表现出了对于美国将改变游离于国际气候变化规制框架之外的的趋势。同时,他也在竞选中说,“we will share our technology and our innovations with all the nations of the world,”. “If we can build a clean coal plant in America, China should be able to as well.”表现出和中国合作的意愿,并强调了技术领域支持中美合作的想法,这恰恰与中国近期强调发达国家应从资金和技术角度积极帮助发展中国家参与国际减排的思路相吻合。

Hopes are no more than hopes.

China and America are two of the largest economies in the modern world. At the same time, they both act independently as autonomous leaders of their sovereign state. Without the political participation and approval of China and America, any notions of formulating legislation for environmental change unrealistic. Obama's pre-election discourse demonstrated trends of changing America's dissociation from international climate change frameworks, and during the election campaign he said "we will share our technology and our innovations with all the nations of the world[...]if we can build a clean coal plan in America, China should be able to as well." This shows the hopes for cooperating with China, and emphasises the idea of technological support in Sino-US cooperation, and tallies precisely with China's recent train of thought urging developed countries to help developing countries through investment of technology and capital. Just as Teacher Zhang Haibin said, Sino-US relations are experiencing a spot of good luck. However, I believe, in this understanding of "shared but different responsibilities", China and America will certainly not be able to reach an agreement, unless either side is willing to forgo its nation's rights and interests. This is an old problem, where China emphasizes "different" and America emphasizes "shared". The important question facing political, economic and legal experts of both countries is how to reach a balanced cooperative agreement, taking into account the demands and rights of each side, when it is impossible to fully satisfy all parties.
Li Wei, candidate for doctor of international law in East China University of Political Science and Law. I am researching on international environment law and economics of law.
Translated by Nathalie Thorne 丽丽

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Wait and see

It seems that there is hope, but it will not necessarily come to fruition. That will depend on the willpower and real-life situation of both (US and China) leaders. Will Chinese leaders still pay special attention to the environment in spite of the financial crisis? Will Obama fulfill his promise? Or is it possible that he finds that the situation does not allow him to do what he wants? Even though Obama insists, will Congress be on his side? We will not know the answers until months later. Let's wait and see.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



I believe in Obama

I believe in Obama. Now we don't know how he will be doing, but at least he will be better than Bush. Bush's unilateralism and America-oriented theory is really unpopular and has a negative impact on the stability of the world. I think Obama should be more clever than Bush and would not repeat Bush's mistakes. I hope he would contribute to the environment.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



don't put too much hopes on the U.S.

the whole world is watching the U.S. as if Obama will change everything, particularly in terms of climate change, after he swore in. why did not the U.S. approve Kyoto Protocol? it is not because Bush himself hates it but becuase it is the U.S. national interest that has the final say. it is easy to understand if you check it in the history. in 1997 in Kyoto, Gore signed the Kyoto protocol but Clinton did not submit it to the congress for deliberation, why? because Clinton knew that it was impossible to get a pass. although the congress assembly now is different from that of that time, but no radical change in the congressmen's attitude of climat change. the U.S. will not officially sign the protocol because it thinks: 1. the climat policy can not impact its economic growth; 2. no acceptance of restricted emission reduction on the side of developing countries. these two points will never change no matter who is on the stage, Obama or whoever.

translated by Ming li