The National Committee on US-China Relations (NCUSCR) often offers its members a chance to hear directly from experts after major world events. Last week’s members-only teleconference about the historic US-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change featured Alex Wang, professor at UCLA School of Law, and Joanna Lewis, professor at Georgetown University and one of Berkshire’s authors. I want to share what I learned with other Berkshire Encyclopedia of Sustainability contributors and Berkshire friends and colleagues.

The US-China Climate Change announcement on 11 November took many people by surprise. It showed the two nations in unexpectedly close alignment. On this issue, the US and China have “far more in common than not,” said Lewis. Moderator Stephen A. Orlins, president of the NCUSCR, focused the discussion on what the agreement told us about the US-China relationship. I realized how important it is, in any complicated relationship, to find things on which we can align ourselves. In this case, China and the US have a common understanding of their impact on the globe. China is not showing anxiety about being held back or kept down, and the US isn’t playing the exceptionalism card. This is something to keep in mind as our nations try to work out other agreements.

Here are a few of the things I learned from the teleconference (audio now available by clicking here):

  • This agreement is not the end of wrangling over cumulative emissions, an issue we’ll hear about at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris from 30 November to 11 December 2015. The emerging nations feel as though they got to the party when the kegs were almost empty but they are still expected to spend the next morning cleaning up with everyone else. Their argument is, simply, that developed nations have grown rich and powerful through unrestricted energy use for decades, and that imposing tough CO2 standards on them isn’t fair. They say, quite reasonably, that rich nations, while more efficient today, have much greater overall responsibility for climate change because of the cumulative amount of CO2 emissions they have produced. On the other hand, we need all nations to take action now.
  • Reducing car ownership is not likely to be a part of what the Chinese government does to combat climate change, and both Wang and Lewis saw car sales continuing to grow. I was sorry to hear this because cars have major social as well as environmental consequences, changing the built environment in ways that diminish civic and community life. Already, Beijing sidewalks are disappearing beneath endless rows of Audis and BMWs. I’d love to see a publicity effort in China that would get young people to jump straight to the kind of thinking about car ownership that young Americans are demonstrating. Americans aged 16 to 34 drove 23 percent fewer miles on average in 2009 than they did in 2001, and far fewer own a car, or want to own one, than in past decades. Such a leap in China would be similar to the leap directly to mobile phones, skipping over landlines.
  • With this new agreement, big changes lie ahead in science and technology policy in China, with prospects for a new orientation in research funding. Chinese progress in several fields, including solar technology, as well as the ongoing process of replacing outdated coal-fired power plants with modern plants are critical in meeting the goals of the agreement.
  • In China, perhaps even more dramatically than in other countries, there is sometimes a conflict between the need to clean up the air and the requirements of climate-change reduction. Both speakers were adamant that “coal-to-gas” – creating liquid fuel from coal as a way to reduce air pollution in Chinese cities – is not the right way forward.

Berkshire Encyclopedia of Sustainability Vol. 1-10With the Berkshire Encyclopedia of Sustainability soon to be published in China, by Shanghai Jiaotong University Press, we’ll be looking for ways to expand our publishing program to support and enrich Chinese research and teaching.

Lewis’s article “Climate Change Mitigation Initiatives in China” from Volume 7 of the Berkshire Encyclopedia of Sustainability, titled China, India, and East and Southeast Asia: Assessing Sustainability,  is available for free download until 12 December 2014.

By 2012, China had become the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. At the core of the climate change challenge is China’s energy sector. Despite a reliance on coal-based energy to fuel its rapidly growing economy, China has made major achievements in promoting energy efficiency and low carbon energy technologies. Many new mitigation efforts are underway, including China’s first ever carbon target and carbon emissions trading programs.