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Do we know change when we see it?

An agreement between the US and China on climate change and clean energy may be more significant than its detractors initially supposed, write Banning Garrett and Jonathan Adams.

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Did the United States and China recently take a game-changing step on climate change and clean energy? Quite possibly so. With little fanfare, and to a chorus of disappointed commentators, the two countries at the end of July committed themselves to bilateral cooperation that could catalyse a global transition to low-carbon sustainable economic development.

The US-China “Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to Enhance Cooperation on Climate Change, Energy and the Environment” issued at the end of the “Strategic and Economic Dialogue” (SED) has been generally viewed as less than earth-shaking. But these assessments may fail to appreciate the real strategic significance of the collaborative venture China and the United States are pledging to undertake.

Much of what was agreed to in this MOU had been part of policies and agreements worked out during the Bush administration, and for this reason it has been easy for many commentators to discount. But as they have parsed the statements, commitments and rhetoric about what was or was not agreed with a skeptical eye, many have missed the new strategic framework provided by this agreement.

This could all be boilerplate rhetoric with little long-term significance. Certainly, the MOU will have little strategic impact without serious, sustained follow through to realise the ambitious agenda of cooperation outlined in the agreement. But there is reason to believe that the two governments may actually follow through on their commitments and a long-term collaborative project with strategic implications will be undertaken.

First, the leadership of the two countries at the highest level now endorses climate-change science and takes seriously climate change as a critical strategic threat to both nations and the world. This is a major change that has taken place in China over the last two years and in the United States with the advent of the Obama administration. Second, the two governments are both committed to scaled-up domestic actions to implement policies aimed at transitioning their economies to clean-energy systems and low-carbon development. Third, the strong and public commitment by the leaders of the two countries to both meet the climate-change challenge and to engage in unprecedented US-China cooperation is a new and essential ingredient to energise the two governments at all levels and the two business communities to vastly scale up their collaborative as well as national efforts. Fourth, international and public pressure will continue to increase on the two biggest consumers of energy and producers of greenhouse-gas emissions to take effective and far-reaching steps to reduce their emissions and to cooperate with international efforts to reduce global emissions.

The prospects for success in this effort are quite uncertain, of course. Transforming the energy infrastructure of the two countries and of the rest of the world is a huge, expensive and multi-decade task that faces many obstacles and hurdles. The fight in the US Congress over establishing a “cap-and-trade” system is indicative of the strength and persistence of the interests that are threatened by change. China, too, has its vested interests who fear they will be losers in an energy transition or simply that the cost will be too high and economic growth will slow, creating social unrest and political instability.

There is one virtual certainty, however, which is that if the United States and China do not implement their new commitment to combat climate change, build clean energy systems and transition to low-carbon economies, the rest of the world is not likely to do so – and it may not matter whether they do or not. The US and China alone are currently on trajectories to produce more greenhouse gases than the world as a whole can be allowed to emit without crossing the climate change threshold limit of increasing the global temperature by 2 degrees Celsius.

It is unlikely the senior Chinese and American officials gathered for the SED were thinking about a multi-generational strategic commitment to transforming the world economic system. But there is a reasonable chance that a decade or two from now, their humble MOU will be pointed to as a historic turning point that marked a strategic shift as important in its global impact as the US-China opening nearly 40 years ago, which started with the secret July 1971 visit to Beijing by then national security adviser Henry Kissinger.

That visit and the subsequent US-China rapprochement played a key – if unanticipated – role in the transformation of the global strategic environment, ultimately contributing to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War, the creation of one world economy, the re-emergence of China and the acceleration of globalisation. It may be that the US and China will reprise the strategic impact of their historic rapprochement by catalysing a global strategic transformation to sustainable, low-carbon development.

The MOU does not lay out such grandiose aims, of course. But the US-China agreement makes a number of critical points that set out both the strategic challenges and the aims of the US-China partnership on climate change and low-carbon transformation. First, this cooperation is based on a common understanding of the strategic threat faced by the two countries: “climate change, clean and efficient energy and environmental protection are among the greatest challenges facing the United States and China.” Second, the statement asserts the key role of US-China collaboration, noting that “cooperation between the United States and China is critical to enhancing energy security, combating climate change, and protecting the environment and natural resources…” Third, by implication, the agreement affirms that far-reaching and effective US-China cooperation is not only necessary, but also possible – and it sets out the framework for greatly deepening, broadening and accelerating this cooperation. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the MOU asserts that “both countries intend to transition to a low-carbon economy…”

Indeed, the most important change—advocated by many critics calling for increased energy and climate cooperation between the United States and China—was the need to raise the issue to a strategic level. Many would agree that only with a strategic focus, fully backed by the top leaderships of the two countries, would it be possible to set out a long-term strategy that can be implemented and scaled up to achieve concrete goals that result in real change. Now that may have happened.

Banning Garrett is the director of the Asia Program at the Atlantic Council of the United States

Jonathan Adams is an associate in the Climate and Energy Program at the World Resources Institute

Homepage image from US Department of the Treasury. Treasury secretary Timothy Geithner and Chinese vice premier Wang Qishan at the Strategic and Economic Dialogue meeting in Washington in July.

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



The Future

It may be a good start. I just wonder if there will be any concrete follow-ups.

Translated by Catlin Fu

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



It remains to be seen

The real fruit of the meeting lies in the new Environmental Agreement that might be successfully procured by both the US and China in the Copenhagen Conference.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Lying, exaggeration and empty talk

Treaties signed by the US and China are simply too many,and few of which are actually enforced. Just ask the consultants of the U.S. Department of Energy in Beijing.
(Translated by Lei Wang)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous








前面谈的都是美国如何如何,那么中国又能帮助美国什么呢?在某些行业我们具有无可比拟的成本优势,我们可以在节能产品的生产这个环节发挥作用。目前全球80%的节能灯在中国生产,低价位为美国乃至全球的节能工作提供了一种低成本的办法。我看未来会有越来越多的节能产品将由中国制造。我们企业应该抓住美国和中国的节能市场机会。[email protected]

Bilateral cooperation on energy conservation between the US and China demands knowing its own situation and that of others

Nowadays, cooperation in new sustainable energy between the US and China is an increasingly hot topic. However, many people rejoice and ask spontaneously how cooperation is to be implemented. In the energy issue, especially energy saving, serious misunderstandings having appear between the two groups which cast a cloud over the cooperation of the two nations.

First, regarding the US, whether the reports from both the U.S. Brookings Institution and Pew Center on Global Climate Change or the signed article made by Steven Chu, US Department of Energy Minister, are all made a terrible mistake. As they suggested, China should give priority to building energy conservation, like many developed nations. But the fact remains that the energy consumption of manufacturing industry accounts for 70 percent of the total in China.

In terms of China, during the process of negotiations on climate change, the Chinese government made two demands of the developed countries - technology transfer and economic aid. Meanwhile, the NDRC made it clear that the developed countries should provide 1% of GDP each year, approximately US$ 400 billion, for the sake of technical assistance and financial aid to China. To my knowledge, there is not any secret power-saving technology in the developed countries, let alone transfer of them. Further, there is a widespread misperception of just what energy-saving is the quantifiable factor that the reducing consumption of coal, electricity and energy. Still, some people would say in layman's terms “energy-saving is surely not money-saving.” In fact, the purpose of energy-saving is to save money, this is putting the cart before the horse.

By now, Sino-US energy cooperation is just on paper and not in practice, because it's not exactly clear what two nations will be bringing to discuss. So what should we do to address the issue of cooperation on energy conservation?

First, many illusions and erroneous views about the technology should be shattered. There are no widely used energy-saving tips and technologies. Maybe some industries, such as the chemical industry, have a groundbreaking technology. Surely none of them will offer aid with no strings attached. But it's worth taking some trouble over getting some other technologies of the US perfectly collaborated, such as automated lighting, highly efficient motor, energy efficiency estimation system (software and hardware) , heat insulating material, waste heat recovery system , and so on.

Second, it’s necessary to analyse the problems posed by the new historical conditions in China and propose pertinent solutions. There is a marked absence of “soft”measures,not technologies. People, that is the key.From the chief executive officials in charge of energy-saving of NDRC at all levels and the designers down to boiler operators, compressor operators need to be trained to increase their consciousness,skill of energy-saving. Almost all famous universities in America offer energy-saving courses. But there is still a blank space in our higher education system. To speed up the cooperation on training of personnel in this field is a key objective.

Finally, we also recognize the reality of barriers to energy conservation. China's energy supply basic monopolistic operations, such as electricity supply can only be done by 23 companies. U.S. experience shows that there is no strong support for the power companies, energy-saving will not be long-term and stable development. How to reconcile and resolve the "energy supply" and "energy saving" in contradiction is a problem. Now, the United States, some states have developed a bill to allow the power company's profits and sales of decoupling, in order to mobilize the power companies to participate in energy-saving enthusiasm and initiative. This we can learn from.

Finally,it requires us to recognize some realistic obstacles in China. The energy supply in China is nearly monopolized, for example, the electric power supply is operated by the two or three companies. The American experience shows that carry forward the energy-saving enterprise in its long continuance and development needs considerable support from the power companies. Further work is needed to resolve the contradiction between "energy supply" and "energy saving". Some states of America have accumulated much experience in the field of energy conservation, which certainly merits our reference and study. Bills have been introduced in America to break up profits and sales of the power company. The goal of these Bills was to stimulate the company's initiative on energy-saving.

What we mentioned above is all about the US, then how can China help the US? There are some unique cost advantages in certain industries in China. We can play an important role in the production of energy saving lamp. Recently,about 80% of the earth's total number of energy saving lamp are produced in China. Low price makes possible the low-budget of energy-saving work in the US, even the global. In my opinion, more and more energy saving lamps will be made in China. Our companies ought to seize the opportunities in energy-saving market in both the US and China.
[email protected]

(Translated by Lei Wang)