Without active collaboration between the US and China, not only will the odds for successful negotiations in Copenhagen this December to secure a successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol be diminished, but it will be unlikely that any meaningful remedy will be found in time to arrest rising global temperatures. Yet talks between the US and China on climate change currently present two contrasting scenarios: one hopeful, the other discouraging.
In the first scenario, the two countries’ senior delegations remain deadlocked, with their polarized stances frozen in place. Moreover, the failure of developed countries — particularly the US — to take responsibility for their historical emissions of greenhouse gases continues, representing a major sticking point because these emissions far surpass those of the developing world.
In the second scenario, billions of dollars in “green” stimulus packages trigger a global race that leads to new energy technologies and their deployment. The US becomes focused on leading in six key clean-tech areas: building efficiency, battery technology, solar, carbon capture and storage (CCS), smart grids and electric vehicles (EV).
These efforts are mirrored by Chinese initiatives in such fields as new low-energy vehicles; light-emitting diode (LED) lighting; building integrated photovoltaics (BIPV); innovative energy efficiency technologies; and various alternative energy sources such as solar, wind, bio-gas and synthetic fuels. Both countries express a determination to find collaborative ways to restructure their energy mixes with new, low-carbon energy technologies.
Given the stakes, it is perhaps understandable why the US and China are holding their climate-change cards close to their chests. Each side is emerging from a period in which it used the other as an excuse for inaction, but they have now actively started to explore which scenario to follow.
The nature of these two countries’ bilateral engagement will dictate how the low-carbon economic “pie” will get carved up, and thus how fast the global economy as a whole can be transformed. Responsibility for this transformation lies irrevocably with China and the US, not only because they are the world’s biggest emitters, but also because only they have the capacity to invest enough in clean-tech research and development, provide a large enough labor force and support a large enough change in global policy. So the future of the world’s climate rests not just on their shoulders individually, but on their ability to work together.
Both sides agree that their roles are critical. Indeed, climate change is now included in all major bilateral discussions, alongside trade, exchange rates, human rights and energy security. And recent exchanges and visits seem to give some cause for optimism.
But climate change represents China’s toughest challenge in international relations since the end of the Cold War. Not only has China recently become the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, but the pace of its future emissions is expected to far exceed forecasts.
At the same time, China remains a vast developing country, ardently seeking more rapid economic growth to lift hundreds of millions out of poverty and to provide better living standards for hundreds of millions more. Balancing its need for growth with climate protection makes China’s role precarious.