Friday, June 5, 2009

Hearing on US-China Climate Change Cooperation

Yesterday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing entitled "Challenges and Opportunities for U.S.-China Cooperation on Climate". The committee heard testimony from Ken Lieberthal, from the Brookings Institute; Elizabeth Economy, from the Council on Foreign Relations; and William Chandler, from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Senator Kerry, fresh from a trip to China, stressed how seriously China's government takes climate change and how the United States and China, being responsible for around half of the world's emissions, must cooperate to tackle climate change.

Ken Lieberthal discussed China's current economic and environmental state. The country will continue to increase its carbon emissions in the coming decades because tens of millions of Chinese citizens are rapidly migrating each year from the poorer countryside to the more affluent cities. This migration causes an enormous demand for raw materials like timber, concrete and aluminum that are very carbon intensive. China must continue to expand its urban infrastructure to support approximately 1.25 million people each month. Coal provides about 70% of China's energy, so the US and China can cooperate on developing clean coal technology because both countries have relatively large amounts of it.

Elizabeth Economy emphasized the importance of assisting China in measuring, reporting and verifying its carbon emissions, and its efforts to reduce those. Because many leaders in China's provinces don't know or don’t have the technological training or expertise to implement the central government's environmental goals, often China's laws don't get enforced or data is falsified. For example, the United States can help train Chinese companies and officials to conduct energy audits.

Bill Chandler spoke about how China's government is frustrated that foreign countries don't give the Chinese government credit for its stringent environmental laws and substantial investments into clean energy technology. For example, the US last year invested $88 billion into green technology, jobs, and research but China invested $200 billion in its stimulus package. China seeks to become the leading manufacturer of electric cars and is putting billions into developing smartgrid technology. He believes China wants to work with the US especially in using markets to reach environmental goals.

All three experts emphasized that China takes climate change seriously as an opportunity for economic growth, but also as a threat to its stability. With much of its economic activity on low lying lands like the Yangtze River Delta or the Pearl River Delta, sea level rise poses a real risk to China’s stability. Similarly, glacial melting throughout the Himalayas and the Tibeten plateau would dramatically impact water availability throughout much of China. China's government is faced with the task of maintaining high rates of economic growth because of massive urban migration while at the same time cutting its carbon emissions to prevent even environmental catastrophe. Right now, with a new administration and the Copenhagen conference coming up, all three experts agreed that the US and China have many areas for cooperation. The United States can successfully persuade China to cooperate in international agreements, but it should not be perceived as attempting to limit China’s economic growth under the pretext of fighting climate change.


  1. I was unaware that Clean Coal technology even existed, but it seems pivotal in the US-China commitment to address climate change. Please enlighten me.

  2. Graham,

    So-called 'clean coal' is widely understood to be the process of capturing and sequesting carbon emissions from coal power. To date, it is not yet commerically available, but demonstration projects in the US and Europe are underway. Because coal is such an important provider of power in both China and the US (and will remain so), technology to decarbonize coal power will be crucial to any global attempts to reduce carbon emissions. See this article for a great explanation:

  3. While clean coal may not be the ideal energy source in terms of its impact on the environment (since coal extraction is not safe nor very clean), the political reality is that there are enormous amounts of coal in the United States and a lot of it in China too. Given this, it's not wise, politically nor economically, to ignore coal and not invest in technologies at making it cleaner.