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Climate Strategy – US-Sino Co-Operation

Warming ties

Climate change challenges cannot be met without Sino-US co-operation

Peter Ogden and Matthew Rogier – SCMP – Updated on May 01, 2008

US President George W. Bush gave a major address recently about the need for America to curb its carbon emissions. The speech has been roundly derided as being “too little, too late”, and deservedly so. It is also characteristic of much of the energy debate in the United States in that it failed to mention an integral part of any successful energy and climate strategy in the 21st century: robust US-Sino co-operation.

Politicians and policymakers in Washington today are caught up in a largely domestic debate over the future of US energy policy. Yet US energy and climate security ultimately requires winning China’s support for a new international, rules-based energy system that works for developed and developing countries alike. The US and China are the top two emitters of greenhouse gases and two of the three top oil importers. If they cannot work together to create a sustainable global energy environment, there is little chance of averting the ill effects of climate change or building more efficient and transparent international energy markets.

That is why the US cannot afford to lose sight of the steps China is already taking to address its energy challenges and, in doing so, allow its own domestic energy debate to take place in a vacuum.

China’s political leadership is beginning to realise the importance of cleaning up the country’s energy and environmental act for the sake of the Olympic Games, China’s economy and, ultimately, perhaps even the Communist Party’s own survival. At the recently concluded National People’s Congress, China’s leaders took new steps to meet environmental challenges stemming from the country’s voracious appetite for fossil fuels. One notable development was the establishment of a National Energy Commission, responsible for creating, implementing and monitoring a new national energy policy, which includes promoting nuclear energy, alternative fuels and conservation.

China’s leaders also directed the NPC to upgrade the State Environmental Protection Administration to full ministry status and rename it the Ministry of Environmental Protection. Of course, this is the same agency that, under a variety of previous names, failed to rein in the country’s billowing pollution. One of China’s biggest energy and environmental failures has been its inability to ensure national policies are implemented by local party officials, whose primary concern is meeting immediate economic growth targets.

Significantly, however, the vice-minister of the newly upgraded Ministry of Environmental Protection, Pan Yue , is one of China’s most famous environmental activists. In 2005, Mr Pan surprised local and provincial authorities, and the people, when he closed projects worth US$14 billion that failed to file proper environmental-impact statements.

While no clear consensus appears to have emerged about how to solve China’s energy and environmental challenges, there is broad internal agreement among the political elite about the threats of failing to do so. One is that environmental degradation will dampen the country’s economic growth, which has been the party’s primary claim to political legitimacy.

A second threat comes directly from the anti-government protests sparked by China’s failed environmental policies. For example, 10,000 People’s Liberation Army troops had to be deployed to a village in Zhejiang province in 2005 when as many as 60,000 rioters swarmed nearby polluting chemical plants. More recently, in May last year, up to 20,000 protesters peacefully took to the streets in Xiamen to object to the construction of a US$1.4 billion petro-chemical plant near the city. According to Elizabeth Economy, of the Council on Foreign Relations, protests like these “represent the Chinese leadership’s greatest fear, namely, that its failure to protect the environment may some day serve as the catalyst for broad-based demands for political change”.

Moreover, as desertification exacerbated by global warming affects 400 million people in China alone, internal migration may cause civil unrest.

Perhaps this is why Premier Wen Jiabao appears ready to provide political backing for these and other reforms. Last year, at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, he said: “China is committed to saving resources and protecting the environment … We take climate change seriously and have formulated the national programme on tackling climate change.”

Creating a new Energy Commission and a more-empowered Ministry of Environmental Protection are signals that China is attempting to come to terms with its intertwined energy and environmental challenges, but more reform is needed. Many analysts in the US, as well as some in China, believe the commission itself ought to have been upgraded to ministry status, to enforce compliance at the local level.

The US, however, must itself address the energy challenge responsibly, and by doing so it will be able to demonstrate the leadership necessary to build and bolster the international architecture that the world needs to achieve greater energy and climate security.

China and the US can together help lead the world towards more sustainable energy policies that promote global economic growth and combat global warming, but they will never make significant progress towards their goal until they are willing and able to work closely with one another on these issues.

Peter Ogden is a senior policy analyst for national security and international policy at the Centre for American Progress. Matthew Rogier is a researcher at the centre

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