The U.S. and China: Common Ground on Climate

The crackdown on dissent surrounding the Beijing Olympics has been a reminder of China’s lingering authoritarianism. Yet for all our differences, the U.S. and China — the world’s two largest emitters of carbon dioxide — have no choice but to work together to tackle climate change.

For the Chinese government, the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics was a time of high tension: Demonstrations over the status of Tibet erupted in March and swept around the world with the Olympic torch, and China’s leaders feared that critics, protesters, and even terrorists could use the games as a global stage. Predictably, as the Olympics neared, China’s response was almost autonomic: tighten draconian controls on almost every aspect of life.

Following the recent crackdown, many in the United States and other democracies may be tempted to conclude that China is retreating back to its Leninist past and that there is little common ground left for meaningful new cooperation. But that would be a terrible mistake, and in no sphere more so than what is arguably the most important challenge of our era — global warming.

While it is true that China is still a country with many authoritarian characteristics, it is also one with which U.S.’s fate is inextricably entwined. One way in which we are deeply linked is around the issue of energy and the environment. And what we increasingly have in common is the huge quantity of greenhouse gases each country now discharges into the atmosphere: Today, China and the U.S. account for nearly half of all global CO2 emissions.

If the world is to find a way to successfully confront the challenge of global climate change, the U.S. and China must not only begin collaborating, but start leading the multilateral effort.

The Asia Society has produced a multimedia presentation, Clearing the Air, that focuses on China’s pollution issues. It includes a remarkable series of photographs taken from an apartment window in Beijing that documents the city’s air quality.

Although we are only beginning to become aware of the connection, our two nations are part of an unspoken, if cryptic, partnership, whose hallmarks to date have been mutual irresponsibility and neglect rather than constructive collaboration. The challenge before us is to transform this still environmentally abusive relationship into a collaborative one where both sides begin to cooperate on finding new solutions.

When it comes to climate change, the interests of our two countries are demonstrably common: One atom of carbon emitted into the global atmosphere from China is the same as one atom emitted from the U.S. And the consequences of rapidly escalating emissions from both nations are now beginning to be increasingly evident in such phenomena as melting glaciers, changing weather patterns, and the loss of Arctic sea ice. Whatever else may divide us, and there is much, we will be unable to escape the consequences of each other’s actions on climate change.

Whatever else may divide the U.S. and China, and there is much, we will be unable to escape the consequences of each other’s actions on climate change.

China’s share of global greenhouse gas emissions has risen from 13 percent in 2000 to 24 percent in 2007. This past year, for the first time in history, scientists estimated that China is producing more CO2 than the United States, which is hardly surprising, given that China’s energy consumption doubled from 2000 to 2007.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, if both China and the U.S. proceed on the current course, China’s annual CO2 emissions are estimated to grow from 5.3 billion tons in 2005 to 12 billion tons in 2030, while U.S. emissions are estimated to grow from around 6 billion to 6.9 billion tons. This means that, without taking major remedial actions, China by 2030 will have accounted for more than 40 percent of global growth in energy-related CO2 emissions.

The problem, as described by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is that for the world to stay in any semblance of equilibrium, heat-trapping atmospheric gases must be reduced some 50 percent below 1990 levels before 2050.

But before we conclude that China is the main culprit, it is worth pointing out that when one calculates the total historical burden of CO2 emissions from energy consumption since the industrial revolution began, China ends up having contributed only 8.5 percent, while the US has contributed 28 percent. Moreover, while the U.S. currently has only 5 percent of the world’s population, we are nonetheless emitting approximately the same amount of carbon as China, which has over four times our population. This means that the per capita emissions of an average American are roughly five times larger than that of the average Chinese.

Given this historical and per capita imbalance, it is hardly surprising that China argues that in any future partnership, the U.S. must not only be prepared to take the lead, but that there must be an apportionment of responsibilities. In other words, because of the U.S.’s past and current profligacy, we should assume more responsibility and make a greater economic contribution to any solution. This very principle has been endorsed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as “common but differentiated responsibilities.”

In both the United States and China, by far the largest source of CO2 emissions comes from the burning of coal rather than oil. This is largely because both nations are endowed with abundant coal reserves. China claims 13 percent of global coal reserves, from which it now derives some 80 percent of its electrical energy, while the US claims 27 percent of the world’s coal reserves, from which it currently derives about 50 percent of its electrical energy. Thus, with the cost of oil rising, neither country is likely to kick the coal habit as a primary energy source any time soon. In this sense the two countries are quite similar in their energy profiles.

Interestingly, China’s industrial sector, which is largely coal-fired, now consumes 70 percent of the country’s energy production, while in the U.S. our industrial sector consumes only 33 percent of our energy. Although U.S. labor unions lament the export of U.S. jobs abroad, few Americans seem to realize that, by outsourcing many of our most polluting industries, we have also managed to export a good deal of pollutants to China as well.

Conventional pollutants, such as mercury and sulfur dioxide, tend to have more localized effects, and thus harm Chinese far more than Americans when emitted in China. But when it comes to CO2 emissions, we are in a commons in which there is no gain to exporting carbon emissions because their effects are global.

Even though the U.S. and China are the largest producers of CO2, neither nation has agreed to any defined limits on emissions. China has signed the Kyoto Protocols, but as a developing country, which means that it is not obliged to meet any absolute limits for greenhouse gas emissions. The United States, on the other hand, signed the Kyoto Protocols under President Clinton as a developed country, or an Annex I nation. When President Bush assumed office, however, one of his first acts was to repudiate the treaty, although in fairness it must be said that the chances of it being ratified by the U.S. Congress at the time were minimal.

Bush had two reasons for ignoring the Kyoto Protocols. First, he didn’t want to burden the U.S. economy with the added costs that adherence to the Kyoto Protocols would have entailed. And second, he feared that unless China (and India) were also willing to meet defined limits on carbon emissions, which they were not, U.S. industries would simply flee abroad to escape the increased costs.

As a result, neither the U.S. nor China, the world’s two largest users of coal and emitters of CO2, are currently “in-the-game,” at least in terms of agreeing to accept defined limits on greenhouse gases. China has been working assiduously, however, toward greater energy efficiency, the most logical place for a developing nation to begin diminishing greenhouse gas emissions without adding excessive costs to their continued development.

China’s 11th Five Year Plan, promulgated in 2005, has also called for a reduction of 20 percent in energy intensity per unit of GDP by the year 2010. And a Renewable Energy Law, which went into effect in 2006, calls for 30 percent of China’s total electrical generation capacity to be renewable by 2020.

To date, what has weighed against significant new levels of joint action by China and the U.S. is an incomplete appreciation of the gravity of the problem. Insufficiently alarmed by the growing climate crisis, leaders in each country have sought to hide behind the inaction of the other. Thus, relatively little has been accomplished to move these two titanic players toward meaningful collaboration.

“Insufficiently alarmed by the growing climate crisis, leaders in each country have sought to hide behind the inaction of the other.”

“As long as China does little to reduce growth of greenhouses gas emissions, or appears to be doing little, it will be politically difficult for the U.S. to sign a binding international treaty that commits to a serious cap on emissions,” Dr. Mark D. Levine, Staff Senior Scientist and China Energy Group Leader at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said in his testimony to the U.S.-China Economic Security Review Commission hearing in the U.S. Congress. “And, as long as the U.S. either does little, or appears to be doing little, it is impossible to imagine China committing to cap its own emissions.”

We have been trapped in what Levine describes as “a vicious circle in which neither country will act boldly unless the other acts first, and neither appears willing to act first.”

When the final assessment of the his administration is made, history may determine that President Bush’s most grievous failure was that he wasted eight critical years without addressing the gathering problem of climate change. A key piece in that failure will doubtless be that he did not aggressively engage China in a common partnership to solve this daunting challenge.

Although during the current election campaign there has been virtually no discussion of forming a new Sino-U.S. alliance on climate change — perhaps because the question of China is perennially such a politically toxic topic — this is an issue on which the next President must launch a major national discussion.

China, ever prickly about being told what to do — especially to be asked as a developing country to slow its economy just as its moment of economic take-off has arrived — will most certainly not be an easy partner. But the reality is that we are in a completely new paradigm: We have no choice but to try and collaborate with this unlikely ally.

As Levine said in his Congressional testimony, “If we can work cooperatively with China to reduce CO2 emissions, the world stands a far greater chance of reducing the threat of global climate change. If we do not, it is difficult to see how China will do it alone. This is a choice that two great nations…have to make.”

The Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations (where I serve as director) — along with other concerned NGOs — is now working on a road map for the next president. This plan will outline how a new partnership between the U.S. and China could be brought about through joint research and development in energy efficiency techniques, carbon capture and sequestration, and renewable energy — innovations that could coalesce into a new economic model. The task force will also outline how such a partnership could have a very salutary spillover effect on America’s overall relationship with China.

After all, if the Sino-U.S. relationship is the most important bilateral relationship in the world today, and if we are ever to allay our fears that China is going to put the U.S. out of business through unfair competition, a way must be found to convert the relationship from a collection of disparate interests and conflicts to one based on a new form of mutual interest.

The road map we are preparing — the Initiative on U.S.-China Cooperation on Climate and Energy — will point the way toward such a collaboration. Yet even with a willing new president, the process of convincing Congress, the American people, and the Chinese government that there is no alternative to collaboration will require tremendous effort. It would also, however, bring tremendous benefit, not only to the U.S. and China, but to the entire world.