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Obama’s green plan

The American president is taking bold steps to address the energy and climate-change crises, writes Niu Jitao. A Sino-US partnership will have a vital role to play.

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Since his election victory, US president Barack Obama has made decisive steps to deliver campaign promises on environment and energy. The nomination of the environment team, with Nobel Prize laureate Steven Chu as energy secretary and Harvard professor John Holdren as science advisor, signals his determination to tackle climate change and develop alternative energy sources. In the first week of his presidency, Obama wasted no time in issuing two memoranda: one ordering the Transportation Department to work out rules for automakers to improve fuel efficiency by 2010; and the other allowing the Environmental Protection Agency to let California set tougher tailpipe standards than are applied nationally. Moreover, the US$787 billion stimulus package includes a tax break for renewable energy development, billions of dollars to modernise the power transmission grid to support renewable power and money to retrofit public housing.

The US financial system has been battered by the fallout from the sub-prime crisis, Iraq continues to stretch the military and national budget beyond capacity and the US image in the world is in tatters. One might think the environment would represent the least of the new president’s worries. But now is a critical time to put energy and environment at the centre of the US national agenda. By prioritizing green, the Obama administration can add a new engine to the economy and redeem the country’s image as a responsible global leader. This also presents a great opportunity for China and the United States to jointly explore solutions to environmental problems, bringing the two countries’ economies and governments into a closer partnership.

The Obama campaign’s platform on energy and environment is the cornerstone of his strategy to free America from its dependence on fossil fuels. His plan calls for the United States to invest US$150 billion over 10 years in renewable energy technology, implement an economy wide cap-and-trade program to regulate greenhouse gases and re-engage in United Nations-led climate talks. Although the new energy plan’s US$150 billion price tag has caused critics to question whether Obama can maintain his commitment to such a costly program in the midst of a worsening financial crisis, it incorporates income-generating mechanisms that would offset most, if not all, of the costs associated with making America green.

As a starting point, the Obama plan calls for an economy wide cap-and-trade scheme that will encourage enterprises to find innovative and efficient ways to cut greenhouse-gas emissions. The new administration will push Congress to pass the bill at the earliest date possible. The revenue generated through auctioning greenhouse-gas emission permits will fund US$150 billion investment in green technology over 10 years and thus would be self-sustaining. 

A greater challenge for Obama will be ensuring that climate protection and energy-efficiency initiatives at home will proceed in tandem with substantial commitments from developing countries, most importantly China. Obama said as much when he declared that climate change was a “common challenge” that had seen little progress. “For too long [the United States and China] have pointed a finger at the other’s attitudes as an excuse for not itself doing more,” he wrote in September 2008 in an essay for the American Chamber for Commerce in China. Indeed, the US rejection of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and the failure of the UN-sponsored 2007 Bali climate-change conference can be partially blamed on the inability of the United States and China to come to an agreement on each country’s responsibilities towards addressing climate change. As the new US administration renews its leadership in tackling climate change, the world will also expect China, though a developing country, to adopt stronger policies as well.

Energy and climate change will likely be the defining issues of Sino-US relations for years to come. As the United States and China account for almost half of the world’s energy use and greenhouse-gas emissions, both countries must push forward an energy revolution to address energy security and climate change. In the area of greenhouse-gas emissions, both countries must reduce their reliance on coal, which accounts for 78% of electricity production in China and 50% in the United States. Similarly, both countries face enormous challenges in the transportation sector as the US accounts for 25% of world oil consumption, more than 60% of which is used for transportation. Meanwhile, the International Energy Agency predicts that car ownership in China will rise from the current 50 million to 270 million by 2030. A February 2008 Science policy brief cautioned that by 2030, China’s carbon emissions will reach eight gigatonnes a year, given current rates of growth.

Although China has clearly been reticent in addressing climate change, it has also made strides to improve. Chinese officials have, in recent years, been acting like climate-change converts. Facing constant energy shortages and environmental degradation, the government has set an ambitious efficiency target to cut energy use per unit of GDP by 20% from 2006 to 2010. China will raise the share of renewable energy from 7.5% to 15% by 2020, and local government officials will be held accountable if the energy-efficiency targets are not met. As a result of these policies, hundreds of small, inefficient coal-fired power plants in China were shut down last year. The shift towards clean energy has encouraged the growth of China’s renewable energy technologies: the country’s solar photovoltaic cells topped world production last year and a slew of new wind farm projects led Zhang Guobao, director of the National Energy Commission at the National Development and Reform Commission, to predict that China could soon be the world’s largest wind power producer.

The progress of energy and environmental policies on China’s end is an effective antidote to the accusation – often made by US politicians – that the country is holding up global action on climate change. In fact, a study compiled by environmental NGO Germanwatch found last year that China performed better on climate protection than the United States. The study, which ranked 56 of the world’s top carbon dioxide emitters based on a combined index that evaluated emissions trends, levels and the efficacy of its climate policies, placed the United States at fifty-fifth, second only to Saudi Arabia. Both the US and China have made recent strides in tackling climate change, yet it remains a daunting task for both countries. The key, as Obama argued during the campaign, is to recognise that the challenges posed by climate change are global in scope and use this as an opportunity to establish a stronger bilateral partnership.

Niu Jitao is a Master of Public Administration student at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He previously worked for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and served as climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace.

This article appeared in an earlier form in China Security (Autumn 2008).

 Homepage photo by Pete Souza/White House photo

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Cooperation is more important than competition for the first time?

After reading this article, I thought of a question: isn’t this effort to cooperate to protect the environment the first time in history where every country and every regime’s top priority is the common interest instead of their self-interest? Isn’t this the first time where every nation has attached so much importance and made so much progress cooperating? If this cooperation has happened before, can someone give an example? Right now I can only think of the following examples: political blocs, economic groups, and diplomatic alliances. They all seem to compete for their group’s interest, and playing some bigger game. Admittedly, the motives behind environmental protection are not purely good (among this we should add the games of international relations), but overall it looks like common interest is more important than self-interest. Everyone, please come and discuss this. (Translated by Michelle Deeter)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


中国现在实行的单双号车驾驶日制度已步入正轨,大大降低了二氧化碳排放量。中国人均二氧化碳排放量没有美国高。希望美国早日签署Kyoto protocol,实现绿色经济。

Green economy

Right now the bill that China will implement banning motorists from driving their cars every other day is all straightened out; it will greatly reduce carbon emissions. China’s per capita carbon emissions is not as much as that of the United States. I hope China will pass the Kyoto protocol soon, and put a green economy in place. (Translated by Michelle Deeter)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


防核扩散似乎是个例子。前有肯尼迪总统在古巴导弹危机中急流勇退,避免于苏联核对抗升级。近有朝核问题六方会谈。国际社会也通过《蒙特利尔议定书》,成功地解决了臭氧层空洞问题。但气候变化问题更复杂。 JT

Against the nuclear proliferation

It's a lot like anti nuclear proliferation. The former president Kennedy bravely withdrew in the Cuban Missile Crisis to avoid the escalating opposition against URSS. The recent six party meeting about North Korea's nuclear weapons is another example. The international community also resolved the problem of holes in the ozone layer through the Montreal Protocol, but climate change is more complicated than the nuclear issue. JT (translated by Tingting Xia)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


“在气候变化问题上,人类社会就像谚语中的温水青蛙一样,当温度慢慢加热时,青蛙从来不想跃出去,直到最后被烫死。”——托马斯 弗里德曼《炎热,平坦和拥挤》
气候变化的问题在于今天的碳排放将影响到未来的气候变化,我们并不清楚50年后发生的一切,因而人类不愿为缓解危机采取重大举措。的确,奥巴马比布什做的要好,中国显得很是积极,国际社会将持续进行紧急协商。但是,恐怕人类所做的对于不可逆转的灾难性的后果来说远远不够。最近冰川融化加速以及极端天气事件频繁等迹象表明科学家们低估了气候变化的影响。约翰•霍尔德伦教授曾说过我们有三种选择来应对气候变化:缓解,即降低人类活动影响全球气候变化的步伐;适应,即减少人类导致气候变化的负面作用;承受缓解和适应都不能避免的负面作用。看起来,我们将会面临这三种选择。假如我们缓解得更多一些,未来我们遭受的痛苦将会更少一些。JT Niu
(Translated by Tian Liang)

Human should not be frogs

“When it comes to climate change, human society has been like the proverbial frog in the pail on the stove, where the heat gets turned up very slightly every hour, so the frog never thinks to jump out. It just keeps adjusting until it boils to death.” –Hot, Flat and Crowded, Thomas Friedman.

The problem with climate change is that carbon emission today will affect climate change in the future. We do not know exactly what will happen 50 years from now. Therefore, people tend to avoid making radical change to mitigate now. Yes, Obama is doing much better than Bush, China is quite proactive and international negotiations will proceed with some kind of urgency. But I am afraid we are not doing nearly enough to avert the trend to irreversible and disastrous impact. The recent signs of the acceleration of melting of glaciers and more frequent extreme weather events indicate that scientists have underestimated the impact of climate change.

Professor John Holdren used to say we have three options to deal with climate change: to mitigate, to adept and to suffer. It looks like we will face all the three options.If we mitigate more now, we will suffer less in the future. JT Niu

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

回 1楼


Reply to the first commend

In my opinion, the need for survival leads every person to become selfish. A country is composed of people and it decides its action after weighing the pros and cons from its own interests. The consequences of the action will bring some feedback, which will revise the action. The environmental protection cooperation between countries is also in line with the above logic.
(Translated by Jing Jiang)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Non-traditional security

Generally sovereign states are very reluctant to pull their strength to promote cooperation between each other within the realms of political, military and foreign affairs. However, when it comes to issues such as public health, cross-border crime and anti-terrorism, there has been a lot of cooperation - the action against the Somali pirates is a good example. Environmental protection is also an area that states can easily cooperate in. Human beings do actually have a fundamental understanding of the principal of win-win situations, however irrational behaviour and misjudged situations take us on too many detours.
(Translated by Tian Liang; edited by Poppy Toland)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


(Translated by Tian Liang)

Spending priorities

1. Kennedy did not withdraw the ships until after the Soviet cargo ships carrying nukes turned around. Kennedy did promise to remove nuke missiles from Turkey but they were so old they were more dangerous to the ground crews than the USSR.

2. Cooperation means that China is going have to do more than just take money and technology from the US. China needs to uniformly and consistently enforce environmental laws, even against the PLA and businesses whose investors are senior cadres. China should also stop spending to much on its space and military programs seeing as how China is critically short of water, clean water, clean food and clean air. It is about priorities.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Reply to comment #4

There is a simple logic here (which the panel were correct about), but which policymakers don’t seem able to understand. Only academics understand (that there are no better solutions.

Due to a combination of factors, we have lost many good opportunities and the icecaps are melting at an accelerated pace.

To solve climate and environmental problems, we need to simultaneously address the symptom and root of the problem.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous







再看太阳能,除了太阳能热水器还行以外,咱们的大型的太阳能光伏发电企业就是两头在外:原料95%进口,市场98%在海外,特别是欧洲的西班牙和德国。我们为什么不使用这么好的东西? 答案是:太贵。



Difficult cooperation

Sino-American cooperation on climate change currently looks virtually impossible. Developing countries, including China, always do everything possible and developed countries, especially America, count outstanding debts. They are always bargaining, what compensation western developed countries have actually given us, what technological transfer, we are only willing to make promises to reduce emissions. Before we answer these complicated questions, we need to ask ourselves, why are developed countries starting green activities? Is everyone like Lei Feng? are we all good and noble people? Or is the calibre of the people of our country inferior, are we all scoundrels and rogues? As for climate change, how much of an impact will it actually have on our economy, is a good thing or a bad thing, what's good about it, what's bad about it? Before we get scientific answers, I see that we are still making up for missed lessons, we need first to grasp the basics. Everytime I think of our wind power or solar energy I get a headache; we are very proud, we are world number one for increasing output from wind power; we are world number one for producing electricity from solar energy, we also have a 20% energy saving target in the 11th 5 year plan; we are very good, even better than America. Look at where the wind power comes from: from Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Yunnan, Sichuan etc over mountains and across rivers to the developed areas in the east and to the developed coastal areas. Where's the problem? Windy areas are mostly poor remote mountain areas, everyone can afford to use the wind power, there's no industry and less electricity is used. In addition, for a while reports have said that these facilities are not being developed enough, the running hours of power generating units in our country recently fell by over 10% on average. To put it bluntly, it's a ruse on the part of large scale interest groups for the future. It's the same for hydroelectric power: our major rivers are all dammed for hydroelectric power stations and this electricity will soon cross countless mountains at a voltage of hundreds of thousands of volts to the coastal regions down an electricity cable. We're doomed. Haven't the snow storms of 2007 already shown us that? Look at solar power. Apart from solar power water heaters, our large solar power companies are overseas at both ends: 95% of raw materials are imported, 98% of the market is overseas, Spain and Germany in particular. Why aren't we using such good things? the answer is: they are too expensive. As for our energy saving plan, we don't want to say too much. I can only say that our ambition outstrips our ability. I don't want to just be a critic. I think the only way forward is for the western world to help China and at the same time to receive help from China, this is a time when we need to use the market. As for the politicians, whether they actually understand energy markets and the energy economy or not, I don't know. (Translated by Jodie Gardiner)