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Bringing China into the Climate Change Fold

POZNAN – The current economic crisis cast a pall over climate change talks held this month in Poland.  While negotiators hoped for concrete progress towards an international climate agreement, the world’s two largest polluters were distracted – the US with preventing a collapse of the financial system in the midst of a presidential transition, China with a slowdown in domestic investment and weakening foreign demand for its manufactured goods. With American home values and retirement savings falling and Chinese unemployment numbers rising, observers worry that neither America nor China will have much appetite to cut emissions.

The paradox here is that the crisis presents a unique opportunity for the United States and China to strike a deal that would lay the groundwork for a global climate agreement. Indeed, one of the main goals of the most recent biannual meeting of the US/China Strategic Economic Dialogue (held the week before the climate talks began) was to begin work under the “Ten Year Energy and Environment Cooperation Framework” created earlier this year.  

This bilateral initiative comes on the heels of a decade in which America abstained from international efforts to address climate change, concerned that if it acts but China doesn’t, the world will fail to meet its emission-reduction targets and US industry will be disadvantaged. China has countered that its historic and per capita emissions remain well below US levels, and that to cap aggregate national emissions at the same level as the US would imply a personal carbon budget in San Francisco five times greater than in Shanghai.

The Strategic Economic Dialogue sidestepped this disagreement on burden sharing and focused instead on what the two countries have in common. Both depend on imported oil for transport and on domestic coal for power generation. Both have strong state-level governments and balkanized regulatory and energy supply systems. But the structure of the two countries’ economies, and what drives their energy needs – and thus greenhouse gas emissions – are very different.  It is this difference that offers the best chance for addressing climate change head-on.