NEW YORK (Reuters) - - Tensions between the United States and China are running high on issues including cyber security, the South China Sea and currency values. So why are the U.S. and China working so well together on climate change? And what does it mean for the world?
Today, President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping announced an important climate agreement. If that sentence sounds familiar, there’s a reason.
At their first summit (in California in 2013), President Obama and President Xi announced plans to cooperate in phasing out HFCs, a super-pollutant with huge global warming impacts.
At their second summit (in Beijing in 2014), the two leaders reached an historic agreement to limit total emissions of heat-trapping gases in each country.
Expectations for progress on climate at a third summit were low, in part because the two previous summits had already accomplished so much. Yet today the two countries announced major new steps to cut emissions.
Most striking, the Chinese government announced plans to launch a nationwide emissions trading program for heat-trapping gases by 2017. The Chinese government also announced that its utilities will give priority to renewable energy when purchasing electricity, a technical but hugely important policy change. Both countries announced plans to control emissions from heavy trucks, a major source of pollution, as well as common positions on key issues in the international climate talks.
All these announcements come on top of a package of pledges to limit emissions from major cities, announced by the two countries in Los Angeles last week.
Why all these steps forward together? Because U.S. and Chinese interests are aligned on climate change in three important ways.
First, both countries face serious threats from climate change, including heat waves, droughts and sea level rise that could displace millions. Both governments recognize those threats and have repeatedly stated their commitment to addressing them.
Second, both countries would face international condemnation if they failed to address climate change. China is the world’s leading emitter of heat-trapping gases, with total emissions last year roughly equal to those of the U.S. and EU combined. The United States is the leading historic emitter of heat-trapping gases (which can remain in the atmosphere for a century), with one of the highest per capita emission rates in the world.
Emissions from both countries have global consequences. Failing to limit their emissions at home would undercut both countries’ diplomatic objectives on a range of issues.
Third, both countries are seeking areas where they can work well together. Despite the significant tensions in their relationship, the United States and China need each other and know it. Their economies are deeply intertwined, with enormous trade and capital flows between them. Areas in which the two countries work productively together can help in managing the many difficult issues in the bilateral relationship.
Other factors also play a role. China’s local air pollution crisis grips the nation. Most measures to reduce emissions of heat-trapping gases also help reduce local air pollutants. The United States has an impressive record cleaning the air in its cities and U.S. companies are eager to help China address its air pollution challenges.
Furthermore, a series of smaller confidence-building measures during the past decade helped lay the foundation for the current cooperation on climate and clean energy. These date back to 2007, when U.S. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson gave priority to these issues by launching a Ten-Year Framework for Cooperation on Energy and Environment with Chinese counterparts. President Barack Obama dramatically accelerated work in this area, launching a U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center and more than a half-dozen related programs at his first summit with a Chinese leader in 2009.
What does U.S. and Chinese cooperation on climate change mean for the world?
It offers hope in addressing one of the world’s most challenging problems. That’s not just because the U.S. and China are responsible for almost half the heat-trapping gases released into the atmosphere each year.
It’s also because the U.S. and China have complementary strengths when it comes to addressing the problem. The U.S., for example, has an unrivalled capacity for producing the technological innovations that will help drive solutions to global warming. China has a large and growing market for those technologies, which often get cheaper as they are produced in large volumes. Working together, the two countries can do far more than acting alone.
It also offers hope that the global climate negotiations in Paris this December will produce a positive result. When the world’s two largest emitters come together as they did today, that provides important momentum to the negotiations.
Yet on this front, caution is advisable. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change does not operate by majority rule. For an accord to be reached, the convention’s rules require “consensus,” which is defined as agreement among all or almost all countries. That will be challenging, to say the least, even when the U.S. and China agree on key issues.
Against a backdrop of serious tension in the bilateral relationship, the U.S. and China are working well together on climate change and clean energy. That offers benefits not just for the two countries, but the world.
(David Sandalow is the Inaugural Fellow at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. He has served in senior positions at the White House, State Department and U.S. Department of Energy.)
Editing by Alden Bentley