What Would New Breakthroughs on Climate Change Mean for the U.S.-China Relationship?

by Joanna Lewis
September 24, 2015

This is the sixth in our series “Americans Speak” on issues relevant to President Xi Jinping’s visit. Today Joanna Lewis, who is Associate Professor in the Science, Technology and International Affairs (STIA) Program at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, speaks on the prospects for implementation of pledges made by the United States and China to reduce carbon emissions, and the importance of the subnational context for achieving those targets.

This post was originally published by ChinaFile on September 16, 2015, at this link. It was updated for NBR on September 24, 2015.

Climate change is on the agenda for President Xi’s U.S. visit this week, not only because it has become one of the most constructive aspects of the U.S.-China relationship, but also because the December Paris climate meeting looms large. Last November’s U.S.-China Joint Climate Announcement helped to change the tone of the international climate negotiations in Lima last December for the better. The targets announced last November already have been submitted by both countries to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and it is unlikely that they will change before Paris. Heading into Paris, there are, however, still many areas where U.S.-China agreement could have a significant impact.

Aside from providing better clarity on areas of agreement related to negotiation topics that will likely be major sticking points in the run-up to Paris, the other core area for new agreements would provide subnational context to the national targets that both countries have pledged. The U.S.-China Climate Leaders Summit in Los Angeles on September 15 and 16 was a great example of how this can be done well. The announcements from the Summit were about implementation, as was the Governors’ Clean Energy and Economic Development Accord signed in Seattle on September 22. While both countries have adopted aggressive national targets and policies, implementation ultimately must occur at the local level. It is therefore crucial to have local government leaders and local companies on board. The international community may remain skeptical of high-level pledges without the added transparency that comes with allocating national targets to provinces and cities. It is equally important to have support from the private sector like we saw in Seattle.

China is a large country with quite a bit of heterogeneity, and different provinces are at different levels of development. To allow the poorer provinces to continue to fuel their growing economies with coal, the wealthier provinces will have to peak earlier so that overall national emissions can peak by 2030. The Alliance of Peaking Pioneer Cities (APPC) announced in Los Angeles is notable in that together the emissions of the eleven cities that have agreed to peak their emissions before 2030 are roughly equivalent to the total emissions of Japan or Brazil. The earliest peaks will come from Beijing, Guangzhou, and Zhenjiang, which have all announced that they will achieve a peaking of CO2 emissions by 2020, or ten years before the national goal. However, these are all wealthier cities with declining shares of heavy industry. These cities are best positioned to lead the way, and to serve as demonstrations for many of the policy tools and technologies that eventually will need to be scaled throughout the country. But it is still crucial that the rest of the country follows suit sooner rather than later, and bringing interior and rural China in line with the achievements of the APPC cities will not be easy.

This is where expanded local cooperation can be quite important. Local-level cooperation can help train local government officials on innovative ways to reduce emissions and can be tailored to the specific circumstances of the region. It was great to see some of the work of the leading NGOs and research institutes that have been working on the ground in China for years be recognized in the bilateral agreements announced in Los Angeles. High-level endorsement of climate and energy cooperation is crucial, but ultimately it is in the cities and provinces, where the rubber meets the road. Local-level cooperation is therefore an area that is ripe for expansion.

Editor’s Note: On September 22, five U.S. governors, including Washington State governor Jay Inslee, and six Chinese governors signed the U.S.-China Governors’ Accord on Clean Energy and Economic Development, pledging to create mechanisms for cooperation in improving energy efficiency, promoting clean and renewable energy technologies, and reducing transportation emissions.