The United States and China recently released the outcomes of 2016’s Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED), an annual series of meetings between high-level U.S. and Chinese policymakers. Over 50 of the 120 outcomes listed were directly related to climate change, energy issues, and the environment. The majority of the published outcomes of this year’s Strategic and Economic Dialogue appear to be reiterations of previously reached agreements. Nevertheless, some of this year’s new or reiterated commitments from the S&ED provide solid examples of the small steps being taken by the U.S. and China as they continue to develop their relationship around climate change cooperation.
Many of the new climate change-related developments within the Strategic and Economic Dialogue emerged from the “Second U.S.-China Climate-Smart / Low-Carbon Cities Summit.” The Summit brought U.S. and Chinese policymakers and private sector leaders together to establish cooperative relationships to address the challenges posed by climate change. This year, leaders of 66 U.S. and Chinese municipalities endorsed the Summit’s “China-U.S. Climate Leaders Declaration,” verbally committing to reporting greenhouse gas emissions, establishing emissions targets, and expanding their cooperative efforts with other municipal leaders.
While the Declaration includes a number of commitments from states and cities in the U.S. and China to both monitor and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, it makes no mention of any mechanism to ensure that the signatories live up to their statements. Previous climate accords have always struggled with the difficulties of enforcing climate targets that are often conveniently forgotten after big summits. In 2011, Bulgaria, Romania, and Ukraine were suspended from the Kyoto Protocol’s cap and trade markets due to inaccurate reporting of greenhouse gas emissions. When Canada faced penalties for its failure to meet emissions targets that same year, it simply pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol altogether. It remains to be seen whether the signatories of this year’s Declaration will actually comply with their commitments absent any sort of enforcement mechanisms.
The Summit featured the signing of a number of interesting agreements between various public and private sector actors, a relatively rare concrete outcome of the S&ED. The cities of Los Angeles and Lanzhou agreed to partner in their attempts to promote clean energy, transportation, and buildings. WRI China and the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group committed to help Wuhan and Shenzen, a major industrial center, develop greenhouse gas emissions inventories. PowerFlame, a U.S. company, and Beijing’s Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau agreed to conduct a pilot project to evaluate the use of U.S. burner technologies as a means to reduce air pollution from gas-fired boilers in Beijing. This list is not exhaustive, but all of the initiatives provide examples of commitments to concrete cooperative partnerships between actors in China and the United States.
At this year’s S&ED, the U.S. and China launched a new effort under the Climate Change Working Group on Power Consumption, Demand, and Competition to increase the use of renewable energy in China. The irony of this effort is palpable. China is already the world’s largest market for solar panels, and the U.S. has levied steep tariffs on solar panel imports from Chinese manufacturers to protect its domestic industries. One of the best ways the U.S. could encourage the adoption of solar panels would be the removal of these tariffs, which hike the price of solar panels for U.S. consumers.
Finally, the U.S. and China reiterated their commitment to the “Race to Zero Emissions” initiative, which is designed to encourage the deployment of zero-emissions buses in American and Chinese cities. U.S. transit agencies currently operate only around 300 zero emissions buses, while China operates at least 1,600 zero emissions buses and over 15,000 alternative fuel buses. The U.S. federal government currently offers modest subsidies to encourage local transit authorities to adopt zero emissions buses, but adoption could likely be greatly improved with a more generous contribution.
The various initiatives detailed above are all relatively modest, but they represent small, productive steps toward the establishment of sustainable societies in China and the United States. If anything, these steps are better than nothing – they at least represent a minor commitment to meet the emissions targets established by the U.S. and China at the Paris Agreement. As I have previously argued, even if every country in the world were to religiously stick by its pledges under the Paris Agreement, we would still fail to prevent potentially catastrophic global warming within the 21st century. It is obvious that a more radical restructuring of the global economy is necessary, but we have to start somewhere.
More than anything, the challenge of climate change should highlight the absolute necessity of U.S.-China cooperation and the extraordinary dangers of a deepening rivalry. Climate change poses a potentially existential threat to contemporary society. The U.S. and China are the world’s two largest emitters of carbon dioxide, and some scientists have suggested that a strong enough pact between the two countries would be enough to put the world back on track to relative climate stability. But the changes necessary to achieve climate stability will require painful compromises and sacrifices, neither of which will be feasible if the world’s largest emitters view each other with suspicion.
The strategic rivalry between the U.S. and China continues to deepen, and this trend seems likely to continue under a presumptive Clinton administration. Yet, because of the challenge of climate change, we need the U.S. and China to embrace unprecedented levels of cooperation now more than ever. There are few historical examples of the leaders of competing great powers embracing peaceful cooperation to secure the common good. It will take a serious reorientation to ensure that we place the fate of our children before the struggle for hegemony.