The U.S. and China on Climate Change: Who Has the Better Hand?

us-china

Source: ipkitten.blogspot.com

As President Obama gears up to make his first presidential trip to China later this month, environmental groups and other research organizations are becoming increasingly more vocal regarding the need for greater cooperation between China and the United States on the issue of climate change.

Three prominent American organizations, the Asia Society, the Center for American Progress, and the Natural Resources Defense Council (N.R.D.C.) all agree that the two countries should make climate change a top priority. In their opinion, China and the U.S. should focus on two aspects of climate change mitigation: the use of carbon capture technology and the creation of a market for carbon.

These organizations lay a solid foundation for why China and the U.S. need to pay more attention to climate change, and they also make a strong case for why the two countries should work together on the issue. However, the question remains: will the two countries tackle climate change during President Obama’s upcoming visit and come to some sort of agreement before heading into Copenhagen, or will the issue take a back seat to other topics as is often the case during these “head of state” meetings?

The reasons for mutual cooperation are numerous. The most striking one (and perhaps the most obvious) is that the U.S. and China make up the two largest greenhouse gas emitters in the world. This is bound to be a point of contention during the Copenhagen Summit in December, and other countries are going to expect both the U.S. and China to deliver on some sort of commitment towards lowering their emissions.

According to the New York Times, “any hope of a meaningful result emerging from the international climate change summit meeting to take place in December in Copenhagen might depend on whether the United States and China first demonstrate that they can reach agreements among themselves”

With so much speculation about the success or failure of Copenhagen, it is true that a tentative agreement between the two countries may give the rest of the world the confidence boost that is needed to create some sort of meaningful agreement at Copenhagen. If the U.S. and China want to be leaders on climate change, they need to show that they are committed to leading on this issue.

It is not unreasonable to wonder if a commitment is wishful thinking. Proponents of an agreement argue that the two countries already have the technology to take active steps on reducing emissions, and so, it is not unreasonable to thing that they may see a common interest and act accordingly. In this view, the only thing lacking is a) a formal commitment, b) adequate funding, and c) a little political muscle. To their credit, they seem to have convinced President Obama to seriously consider their recommendations, and there have been some positive (albeit small) steps in the right direction. In President Obama’s speech at M.I.T. in October, he discussed a desire to utilize American innovation to create “peaceful competition” in the clean energy sector. Furthermore, President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have both stated that climate change is a top priority during their upcoming trip to China.

However, most people appear to be cautious (if not downright pessimistic) regarding the likelihood of any agreement between the U.S. and China. In his article, Edward Wong of the New York Times argues that the U.S. and China are “unlikely to move away from this reliance on coal and other fossil fuels anytime soon”, which makes the likelihood of a bilateral commitment unlikely as the two countries continue to focus on regional consumption.

The verdict is still up in the air as to whether President Obama’s trip will address the issue of climate change. If his speech at M.I.T is any indication, he is likely to gloss over the issue and may perhaps offer a tiny offering of hope regarding an agreement. That offering will likely be something insignificant like claiming that both the U.S. and China are aware that climate change is a pressing issue and that something needs to be done. My guess is that neither countries want to show their hand before Copenhagen. If this is the case, then the trip may be a disappointment for many environmentalist who truly hope that the U.S. can be a leader on climate change.

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One Response

  1. Update: Below is a really good article from The Economist about China’s struggle between wanting to “go green” and wanting to “get richer.” It is long, but informative!

    http://www.economist.com/specialreports/displaystory.cfm?story_id=14678515

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