How to cooperate on climate

A deal between the American state of California and China's Jiangsu province provides a promising model of international partnership. Linden Ellis reports.

On the perilous road to the conference in Copenhagen, which opened this week, the United States and China too often seemed to be playing a game of “climate-change chicken”. However, US president Barack Obama’s recent trip to China did produce some promising joint agreements on areas including renewable energy and electric vehicles. And another positive development recently occurred, albeit with less fanfare. October saw the signing of a deal between the American state of California and the Chinese province of Jiangsu, hailed as China’s first sub-national framework agreement to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

Environmental cooperation between California and Jiangsu started in 2005, when US green groups the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the China-US Energy Efficiency Alliance brought together two of California’s top energy planning bodies with Jiangsu’s economic and trade commission (now the department of commerce). A subsequent agreement focused on energy efficiency, particularly demand-side management. Earlier this year, California’s secretary for the environment, Linda Adams, took part in the launch of Jiangsu’s greenhouse-gas registry – the first project of its kind in China – a partnership between The Climate Registry and the Innovation Center for Energy and Transportation (iCET).

The partnership seems like an easy fit. At the Governors’ Global Climate Summit in Los Angeles, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger referred to Jiangsu’s reputation as the country’s leading province on green economic policy, calling it “China’s California”. In the past few years, the province has developed the largest new energy industry in China and is home to a quarter of the country’s “National Environmental Protection Model Cities.” In the summer of 2008, Jiangsu instituted an energy-efficiency incentive programme based on a model pioneered in California, which saw 30 years of stable per capita energy use accompanied by a 40% growth in its economy.

The accord has two main components: policy development, headed by California, and new technology development, headed by Jiangsu. The two main breakthroughs, according to NRDC’s Barbara Finamore and iCET’s Feng An, were an agreement to reduce greenhouse gases on both sides and a deal to implement strategic training programmes on data management, tracking and reporting. With climate legislation entering the US senate, this second point addresses fears within the government about an inability to track emissions data in a climate deal with China. The agreement, said Finamore, “will open the door to productive exchanges and capacity building on the critical topic of how to monitor, report and verify both energy savings and carbon dioxide reductions.”

The agreement also focused on solar photovoltaic (PV) development. Jiangsu alone produces 20% of the world’s solar panels. Not only can the Chinese province learn from California’s experience in business and design innovation, but the downturn has also caused a significant decline in Europe’s solar purchases, creating a large incentive for Jiangsu to enter the nascent US market. California also stands to gain by purchasing PV from Jiangsu. First, California is the only state to set mandatory emissions reduction targets for 2020. Meeting the targets will require widespread adoption of solar power. The state also needs to create jobs, and importing panels can stimulate “green jobs” in local assembly, distribution, installation and maintenance.

California’s leaders have seen brighter days: the state has run out of funds and the governor is unpopular with voters. Enthusiasm and funding from the Jiangsu government may need to be matched by California’s non-profit and private sectors. But the project’s organisers are optimistic about their next move: creating a steering committee to lead the project through a period of political uncertainty in California. “Having a steering committee that is knowledgeable, experienced and committed to making it work will make all the difference,” said Finamore. As long as economic benefits are made clear, the project is likely to gain the support of an incoming governor.

The partnership is a notable demonstration of commitment and cooperation. However, neither California nor Jiangsu represents its national government. Whether the agreement can create bottom-up pressure for further bilateral and international cooperation remains to be seen.

Linden Ellis is US editor of chinadialogue

Homepage image from Green Solutions Showcase

California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, in green necktie, at a display of eco-friendly products