A Progress Report on U.S.-China Energy & Climate Change Cooperation

A Q&A with Joanna Lewis

In his second inaugural address, President Barack Obama committed to confronting climate change, stating, “The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it.” These were welcome words to scientists and policymakers, many of whom had expected to hear them a lot earlier.

In January 2009, Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations and the Pew Center on Global Climate Change published A Roadmap for U.S.-China Cooperation on Energy and Climate Change. Advisors included U.S. Senators Diane Feinstein and Maria Cantwell, and now outgoing Secretary of Energy Steven Chu co-chaired the project. The report asked the incoming Obama administration to take immediate action on climate change, and to end the cycle of scapegoating—wherein the U.S. blamed China for its inaction and visa versa—by confronting climate change bilaterally, as a common problem in a collaborative manner.

As the following video produced at the time notes, the Roadmap recommended deploying low-emissions coal technologies, improving energy efficiency and conservation, developing an advanced electric grid, promoting renewable energy, quantifying emissions, and financing low-carbon technologies.

Video: “A Roadmap for U.S.-China Cooperation on Energy and Climate Change”

Four years later, has anything changed? Joanna Lewis, the Roadmap’s Research Director and Assistant Professor of science, technology, and international affairs at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, and author of the new book, Green Innovation in China: China's Wind Power Industry and the Global Transition to a Low-Carbon Economy, gave us this progress report:

ChinaFile: Are the U.S. and China working together in the ways the report prescribed?

Joanna Lewis: They are! It has been great to see many of the Roadmap’s recommendations carried out. Back in November 2009 (eleven months after the Roadmap was released), the United States and China signed seven new agreements on clean energy cooperation, covering energy efficiency, renewable energy, electric vehicles, and advanced coal technologies, among other areas. Also launched was the U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center, which facilitates joint research and development on clean energy technology by teams of scientists and engineers from both countries. In addition to these programs launched at the beginning of the Obama administration, there is ongoing cooperation with China across other U.S. agencies under the Ten-Year Framework for Cooperation on Energy and Environment.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, China is now consuming nearly as much coal as the rest of the world combined. What is the status of the two countries’ attempts to deploy low-emissions coal technologies?

Despite China’s achievements in clean energy, moving away from its reliance on coal remains a real challenge, and the environmental impacts of China’s coal use have been front and center in the news recently. The good news is that China’s State Council has responded by setting a long-awaited cap on total coal consumption of 4 billion tons of coal equivalent (tce) in the Twelfth Five-Year Plan period. China has been installing more efficient coal plants and closing down inefficient ones, but if they cannot curb the rate of increasing coal consumption these technologies will have little impact on emissions overall. China’s true challenge going forward will be to slow the expansion of heavy industrial production—including iron, steel, and cement—as the majority of China’s energy use is still driven by industrial sector consumption.

The report theorized that in working together on climate change, a common challenge facing both countries, the relationship between the U.S. and China would improve. Is this still the case?

I think building on our countries’ shared challenges in addressing climate change to strengthen the bilateral relationship has been a real missed opportunity. Trade cases filed against China’s solar and wind industries by the U.S. government have complicated the agenda for clean energy cooperation. As both countries become leaders in developing and deploying clean energy technologies, it’s natural for our companies to compete, and for our governments to be leaders in establishing and enforcing the rules of the global trading system. But these technologies are global industries with global supply chains, and national technology providers increasingly are crossing borders for both innovation and production. The U.S. government needs to take a high-level, strategic look both at our own competitiveness and innovation strategy going forward as well as our overarching goals with respect to engagement with China. If we let a series of trade disputes derail our program of bilateral cooperation, it will have negative implications not just for our overall bilateral relationship, but also for the world’s ability to develop and deploy the energy technologies needed to address climate change.

The Roadmap asked the U.S. and China to jointly lead an international response to climate change. Has either the U.S. or China been a leader on this front over the past four years?

In the months leading up to the Copenhagen climate negotiations in December 2009, China surprised many by announcing its first national carbon target—a 40-45% reduction in carbon intensity from 2005 levels by 2020. Since then it has incorporated this target into the Twelfth Five-Year Plan period (a 17% reduction during the 2011-2015 period) and begun implementation of seven pilot provincial and municipal level cap-and-trade programs for regulating carbon dioxide emissions. While the U.S. government reaffirmed its pre-Copenhagen commitment to reduce emissions 17% below 2005 levels by 2020 in Doha last November, the absence of new domestic climate change initiatives has left many wondering if this target can be achieved.

What was your response to President Obama's second inaugural address? Do you have hope his second term will bring about greater action on climate change? Does Xi Jinping show any signs of differing from his predecessor?

I doubt that incoming Chinese President Xi Jinping was expecting that air pollution would be at the top of his list of problems to address when he assumes the Presidency in March, 2013. Affirming his commitment to expanding renewable energy utilization and reducing coal consumption is a great start, but there will be real challenges in implementing these aggressive targets. Detailing with widespread curtailment of wind energy, for example, must be dealt with as it is costing the industry an estimated $1.6 billion per year.

In the United States, President Obama has announced that climate change will be among his policy priorities for his second term, but the specifics of any initiatives or actions remain to be seen. As the Eastern U.S. still recovers from the damage of Hurricane Sandy, I think that Americans are realizing the likely impacts associated with climate change, and public opinion on the issue may be beginning to shift. In the meantime, we are running out of options for avoiding the worst impacts of climate change, and many nations around the world are still looking for U.S. leadership on this issue.