Can the US match China’s efforts?

Dialogue between the two countries has produced some positive examples of green collaboration, but Obama still needs to show leadership on climate. Hou Yanli explains how.

US president Barack Obama’s first state visit to China and his joint announcement with Chinese president Hu Jintao have renewed hopes for international climate talks, as both countries reaffirmed their commitment to a successful outcome in Copenhagen. This is a welcome development as the talks had fallen into political pessimism following the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, when APEC leaders said they would not seek a binding deal at negotiations this December in Copenhagen, but would work towards a political framework that could eventually lead to a deal.

The world needs a legally binding global deal in Copenhagen if it wants to keep the global temperature rise below two degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels. What we need now is political will and a demonstration of leadership, particularly from the United States and China. The key to reaching this lies in fostering cooperation in areas like clean energy and low-carbon technology between the two countries, with an ultimate goal of setting long-term emissions reduction targets that are more concrete.

As the Asia Society’s Orville Schell has noted, “Without [the United States and China] in the climate-change game, there is, in effect, no game at all, and Copenhagen cannot succeed.”

The good news is that dialogue between China and the United States on climate change over the past year has identified many areas of mutual interest. Collaboration has expanded rapidly in areas like green technology, technology exchange and investments in low-carbon companies.

Opponents of the United States signing a binding agreement in Copenhagen have continually argued that they will not take action because China is not moving to cut emissions. But it turns out that China is actually doing a surprising amount to address climate change, and is planning to do more in the future.

In 2006, China unilaterally announced a series of ambitious targets to curb emissions growth. It is on track to reach the 20% energy intensity target it set for 2010, a goal that will reduce carbon emissions by 1.5 gigatonnes. This is the largest reduction of any country in the world, and nearly four times larger than EU member countries’ combined emission reduction commitments under the Kyoto Protocol. The Chinese government will continue this trend beyond 2010, reaching a 50% reduction in energy intensity – or equivalent reduction in carbon intensity – by 2020 from 2005 levels.

By 2020, China will obtain 15% of primary energy from renewable sources, which will help shave an astounding four gigatonnes off its annual emissions compared with 2005 levels. This figure will likely be even larger: the amount of primary energy from renewable sources is shaping up to be closer to 20%, as development is running ahead of schedule.

This year China is expected to reach the world’s second-largest installed wind power capacity, and the largest installation of wind turbines. It is already the world’s largest manufacturer of solar photovoltaics, and has more than 60% of the world’s solar water heaters. The nation also accounted for 80% of the world’s new solar water units in 2008.

Despite all these achievements, however, China could and should do more. China has, after all, surpassed the United States to become the world’s largest carbon emitter. Participation in international climate negotiations is a must, as is promoting low-carbon technology development and diffusion. And over the long term, China needs to prepare for its emissions peak and consequent decline in line with global climate targets.

Let’s not forget that its per capita emissions are still 4.5 times less than the US average. And in terms of “historic carbon debt”, China has had less of an impact as well, contributing an estimated 8% to America’s 29%.

But can the United States match China’s four-gigatonne emissions reduction? Simply put, the country will not be able to match this target without considerable effort. If any global deal is to be reached, the United States will have to set similarly ambitious targets that show the world it is willing to lead.

Other nations are already doing this according to their individual capacities: the European Union has reaffirmed its goal to reduce carbon emissions by 20% to 30% by 2020 from 1990 levels. Meanwhile, Japan has made a similarly ambitious pledge, offering to slash 25% of emissions from 1990 levels.

For the United States and China, more strategic and practical cooperation in clean energy and low-carbon technology is an excellent start to bridging a very dangerous divide. Success in low carbon development has the potential to dramatically change our future – both in terms of kick-starting the zero-carbon revolution and keeping the temperature rise below two degrees.

With less than 3 weeks to go, world leaders including presidents Obama and Hu face a crucial choice: give up, or stand up for a strong outcome at Copenhagen. To achieve the latter, the two countries must find ways of cooperating that produce mutual benefits. It is thus of paramount importance that Obama works closely with China to facilitate a secure, stable and dynamic low-carbon investment environment for the transition to a low-carbon economy in both countries.

Hou Yanli is director of the Global Climate Initiative at WWF-China
Homepage image: official White House photo by Pete Souza