News & Notice
U.S.-China Climate Change Cooperation

The U.S. and China, the world’s two largest emitters of greenhouse gases, must both take decisive action reducing emissions in the next five years—before it is too late to avoid the most catastrophic effects of global warming. Cooperation on climate change is in both countries’ interests, and groundbreaking dialogues between China and the United States have already begun to identify areas of consensus and mutual interest.

Minister Xie Zhenhua, vice chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission and China’s top climate change negotiator, joined Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington State to discuss U.S.-China climate cooperation. Moderated by Jessica Mathews, the event was co-hosted by Carnegie and the Global Environmental Institute (GEI) of Beijing.

U.S.-China Track II Climate Dialogue

Mathews opened the discussion by revealing for the first time that Carnegie and GEI together facilitated a year of off-the-record talks between Chinese and American energy experts and political leaders. Bill Chandler, director of Carnegie’s Energy and Climate program, and Jin Jiaman, executive director of GEI China, launched the talks in 2007 with the goal of moving beyond discussing what the two countries could do to address climate change and beginning to discuss how to do it. According to Chandler, helping to facilitate the political agreement to begin the dialogue seemed to be the best service the non-government sector could provide.

The resulting U.S.-China Climate Track II Dialogue afforded leaders from each country the opportunity to speak frankly and discuss the types of collaboration likely to produce results. Both teams agreed global emissions must be cut by 60 percent by the year 2050, and that both China and the United States must take action.

Mathews explained that the dialogue reached broad agreement on two main priorities for future cooperation:

Building human capacity to accelerate market deployment of existing energy efficiency technologies.
Joint development of key energy technologies, specifically carbon capture and storage and automobile fuel economy.
China’s Perspective: Minister Xie

Throughout his remarks, Minister Xie stressed the importance of cooperation and dialogue on multiple levels—not only between China and the U.S. but also domestically within each country. He thanked Carnegie and GEI for arranging the event, saying that he appreciated the opportunity to meet with people from a range of sectors, from government officials to business and NGO leaders. He also highlighted the far-reaching impacts of China-U.S. climate cooperation:

“Taking active measures to address climate change is in the interest of all mankind, and it requires the cooperation of all countries.  As the largest developing country and the largest developed country in the world, China and the U.S. having a dialogue and strengthening cooperation on the issue of climate change is inevitable in history. China and the U.S. conducting dialogue and pragmatic cooperation on climate change will benefit not only the relations of the two countries but also the international cooperation and actions to address climate change.”

Minister Xie went on to say that his visit to Washington was very productive and met its three primary goals of promoting greater understanding, discussing future cooperation, and preparing for the G20 meeting in April. While differing perspectives and a poor understanding of each others’ circumstances can sometimes present a barrier to cooperation, Xie noted that his meetings this week with members of Congress and the Obama administration had already revealed many areas of consensus.

Yet Xie also drew attention to the fact that China and the United States are in very different circumstances with regards to their economic development, and these circumstances inevitably affect each country’s potential to address climate change. The United States, he said, should establish a domestic cap-and-trade system and should provide financial and technological support for developing countries as they strive to find an environmentally sustainable path toward economic development.

But despite the environmental and development challenges facing the country, and contrary to common misconception, China is already taking important steps to increase energy efficiency and curb emissions growth. Xie listed a number of initiatives that China has implemented or augmented in recent years, including an ambitious goal to cut energy intensity (per unit of GDP) by 20 percent by 2010, with a complementary goal of increasing the share of renewable energy to 10 percent by 2010 and 15 percent by 2020. Xie noted that China aims to use market mechanisms to promote clean technology as much as possible; indeed, thanks in part to a set of economic policies that prioritize renewable energy, China already ranks 5th in the world in installed wind power capacity, and it is the world leader by far in installed solar thermal capacity.

Regarding multilateral cooperation, Xie was adamant that all countries should adhere to the Bali roadmap and should strive to attain productive results in Copenhagen in December. The financial crisis must not be used as an excuse for countries to lessen their existing commitments under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. U.S.-China dialogue and cooperation benefits both countries and benefits the world, he said, and this bilateral cooperation may ultimately make a global deal possible.

U.S. Perspective: Senator Cantwell

Senator Cantwell also presented a strong argument for U.S.-China cooperation, focusing on the economic opportunities of clean energy and stressing that the United States and China both stand to receive enormous gains from technology partnerships.

The Senator explained that the two countries’ complementary strengths and weaknesses provide great opportunities for collaboration. Whereas the United States has a more advanced science and technology research system and has a well established process for bringing technologies to market, China has a better understanding of what technology works well in the developing world and has the ability to produce technological products more quickly and cheaply. A robust U.S.-China partnership, therefore, “has the potential to catalyze development and drive down the costs of a diverse array of clean energy technologies.”

She called this strategy “coopetition”—cooperation in some areas and competition in others. “Rather than competing with China for an ever-shrinking foreign energy reserve, we could combine our market opportunity and turbocharge promising, nascent clean energy technologies.”

Three initiatives can help us realize the potential of this partnership:

Decrease tariffs on clean energy and environmental goods and services, which currently reach as high as 35 percent in some parts of the world. Senator Cantwell added that she planned to introduce a Senate resolution the following day, calling on the United States to work with China on eliminating clean energy and environmental tariffs around the world.
Establish a clean energy free trade zone with China, to stimulate economic growth in the clean energy industry and establish important business partnerships, and to demonstrate the benefits of eliminating tariffs and other trade barriers.
Work on a U.S.-China bilateral agreement on energy. Such an agreement could spur joint financing, establish demonstration projects in both countries, and promote joint energy-efficiency projects that would benefit both countries.
Like Xie, Cantwell also concluded with the hope that U.S.-China cooperation may help pave the way for an effective global climate deal.


In the question and answer session, Xie and Cantwell first discussed the prospects of domestic climate legislation in the U.S., with Cantwell expressing her hope that Congress may agree to some form of Obama’s cap-and-trade plan before the end of the year, while acknowledging the hurdles that must be overcome first. Xie explained that his country will be more likely to act aggressively once the U.S. takes this decisive domestic action and agrees to help countries like China finance their transition to a clean energy economy.

The speakers also addressed more technical questions such as border tariffs on goods produced in relatively carbon-intensive countries like China. Senator Cantwell reiterated her support for bilateral free trade, and Minister Xie echoed this sentiment, saying that climate change should not be used as an excuse to practice protectionism. Instead, climate change and trade are two different issues that should each be debated in their separate respective arenas. Both speakers also agreed broadly that international property rights must be protected in any exchange of ideas and technologies, which will provide greater incentive for the type of research that will ultimately benefit both countries.

At a reception following the event, Minister Xie again thanked Carnegie and GEI for their support, and thanked his audience members for their dedication to the cause of climate change. “For those of us who care about climate change,” he offered, “we are all friends, and we are all colleagues.”

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