Conflicts between the US and China are now a "normal phenomenon" as China becomes an equal sized economy, said Tao Wang of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, a panelist in our two-day live discussion
on the relationship between the two superpowers and its impact on climate change and energy.
But a collaborative approach and understanding of the challenges faced by each are needed to move forward: "China recognises climate change but like the US, faces many complicated domestic challenges…Don’t forget, there are still more than 100 million people under the poverty line," Wang said.
The live discussion, hosted by chinadialogue in partnership with e-magazine Tea Leaf Nation, was split over two days. Day one focused on climate change. Day two on energy, trade and clean technology.
In the US, a key challenge is getting climate change back on the political agenda, panelists said. Ross Perlin, a US-based writer on environment and labour issues, said only a "robust economic recovery and a strong Democratic performance in the 2014 mid-term elections will bring climate change back as a major national concern, combined with continued extreme weather conditions like Hurricane Sandy." Martin Bunzl, founding director of the Rutgers Initiative on Climate and Society, pointed out that with the development of gas and an end to new coal plants, Americans may claim they are already "doing their bit".
A similar claim could be made in China. Angel Hsu of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies pointed out on day two of the discussion that China invested around US$54.4 billion in clean energy in 2010 – making it the biggest investor in the world.
But a guest commenter named Jens pointed to a recent WRI report that said China was planning to build 363 new coal power plants. Can China seriously argue it is committed to tackling climate change when it is so committed to coal, Jens wondered.
Li Shuo of Greenpeace China, also on the panel, agreed that coal posed serious challenges. "Not only can the climate not handle such coal development, but also Chinese water resource and the already very bad air pollutions can’t bear with more coal," he said.
For Dale Wen, China associate at the International Forum on Globalisation, it is no good simply to worry about China’s coal use: "It [China] is investing heavily in almost all energy sources, renewable, coal, nuclear, and now shale gas. One can criticise China’s investment [in] coal, but for such criticism to be effective, one needs more constructive suggestions how the country should meet the energy demand," she said.
During day two’s discussion about trade and clean tech, Paul Joffe of the World Resources Institute, reiterated the common concerns and challenges shared by the US and China – namely the pursuit of clean energy, ensuring security of energy supplies, protecting public health and environment and economic growth.
On the question of US shale-gas discoveries and mooted energy independence, Joffe said: "The possibility of much increased US energy security is real, but we should not let that confuse us. Oil has a global price and that will not change. Moreover, improved security does not solve the climate problem necessarily and since Sandy, people realise even more that is real."
Collaboration on clean technology offers the best opportunity to improve relations between the US and China, he said. This echoed a point made by Ross Perlin on day one, who drew attention to the technology transfer between Silicon Valley and China’s green technology world. Tao Wang said both countries had benefited from the collaboration and hoped future "trade wars" would not change this dynamic.
Such "trade wars" have occupied a lot of media attention in recent months. Dale Wen argued that the US had put China in an impossible position. “Either (the Chinese) don’t take action on climate and we slap a BTA [border tax adjustment] on your imports, or take action and we challenge your support of green tech.”
Angel Hsu agreed: "Trade sanctions by the US are certainly sending a negative message to China with respect to its commitment to clean energy".
But there was optimism too. Yang Fuqiang of the Natural Resources Defense Council said there was "too much interdependence" in the US-China relationship for a real trade war to take place.
"The US and China are the number one and number two economies in the world. They both have to enhance open discussion, information and consultation rather than playing tough with each other. These two economies need to figure out how to complement each other. Generally speaking, the US has more advanced technology and its R&D is more creative. China is very strong in large-scale manufacturing and keeping costs low,” he said.
UN climate talks
Next week, officials from around the world will gather in Doha for the next round of UN climate talks. This year, said Angel Hsu, the world will be watching the US and China to see if recent political events in both countries will provide any momentum to the stalling talks.
Martin Bunzl and Ross Perlin said the feeling in the US was that the UN process was not going to work and that smaller bilateral agreements between major emitters was more likely. Tao Wang agreed, but argued the UN talks should not yet be sidelined. "A bilateral agreement that could enhance mutual understanding would certainly be helpful, but there is concern that a US-Sino agreement might not necessarily be climate friendly," he said.
On potential for carbon-emissions reduction by China, Perlin said the country could "flatten out its emissions faster than any country in history". But Angel Hsu thought this was unlikely to happen very soon: Chinese officials do not expect China’s emissions to be able to peak for a "very long time", she said, perhaps as late as 2040, and this will be a "hot topic of debate in Doha".
But, she added, China is "committed to the UNFCCC process". "In October, they just hosted a meeting for a new bloc of the G77&China, called the "Like-Minded Developing Countries," which include Saudi Arabia and also Bolivia, which was the sole opposer to the Cancun Deals. It’s an odd mix of developing countries, but the fact that Beijing hosted the first meeting is very promising in that it shows China is thinking creatively and trying new methods to break through old deadlock," she said.
This was welcome news to other panelists, including Paul Joffe, who said it would be premature to abandon the UNFCCC. "There is always talk about what possibilities exist beyond the UNFCCC, especially possibilities that can feed back into it. But we have not see serious suggestions that the UNFCCC should be abandoned. Of course it needs to make progress, but that is up to the US as well as others. And all need to do more than existing pledges. So even if the US is able to meet its existing pledge, those pledges are short is what is needed for 2 degrees."
Prize for most fascinating comment of the discussion goes to Angel Hsu. "The good news,” she said, “is that local air pollution problems and PM 2.5 has made the public very aware of clean energy and the link between it and clean air. Recently, I saw a music concert advertised in southwestern China that was called ‘PM 2.5.’ So awareness of PM 2.5 and pollution have entered mainstream culture."