US-China Strategic & Economic Dialogue Offers Encouraging Progress on Climate Issues

Earlier this month, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Treasury Jack Lew convened with Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang and State Councilor Yang Jiechi at the 8th Strategic & Economic Dialogue (S&ED) in Beijing to discuss many of the leading issues surrounding the present Sino-US relationship. Despite recent friction over maritime, cyber security, and human rights policies, climate change and clean energy issues continue to be a noticeably encouraging point of bilateral cooperation between the two countries.

Emphasizing this progress, Secretary Kerry even described impressive US-China collaboration on climate issues as “one of the strongest pillars of our relationship.” Vice Premier Wang shared Kerry’s view, expressing, “we need to continue to use the S&ED, the Summit on Climate-Smart/Low-Carbon Cities, Climate Change Working Group, and other mechanisms to expand our bilateral practical cooperation on energy conservation, emissions reduction, clean energy, smart grids, green ports, and low-carbon cities, and to create more tangible benefits to our two peoples.”

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US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping have demonstrated a commitment to bilateral cooperation on climate issues, jointly signing the Paris Agreement in March of this year

Their sentiments speak volumes about the momentum currently surrounding Sino-US efforts to overcome the daunting challenges posed by climate change. Successful meetings between Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping each of the past three years have produced a series of joint statements on climate change cooperation and action—including the signing of the Paris agreement this past March in Washington that reaffirmed ambitious bilateral climate targets set at COP21 during fall 2015.

This executive level cooperation set the stage for last week’s S&ED negotiations in Beijing, as the two sides moved one step closer to realizing major energy saving and carbon emission reduction goals. These efforts were facilitated through the framework of the US-China Climate Change Working Group (CCWG)—a body that is now in its fourth year and coordinated by the US Department of State and the Chinese National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC). As the S&ED concluded, the CCWG presented nine concrete action initiatives that offer both short- and long-term solutions within a variety of sectors:

  1. Heavy-Duty and Other Vehicles
  2. Electric Power Systems
  3. Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Storage (CCUS)
  4. Energy Efficiency in Buildings and Industry
  5. Collecting and Managing Greenhouse Gas Emissions Data
  6. Climate Change and Forests
  7. Climate-Smart/Low-Carbon Cities
  8. Industrial Boilers Efficiency and Fuel Switching
  9. Green Ports and Vessels

This collaborative promotion of innovative energy-saving and environment-protecting technologies offers exciting prospects for not only environmental and scientific advancements, but commercial interests too. Secretary Lew expressed the importance of curtailing finance for high-carbon projects such as coal-power generation in favor of lower-cost alternatives—through climate finance projects that include development finance institutions, direct bilateral assistance, multilateral development banks, and the  Green Climate Fund and China South-South Climate Cooperation Fund.

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The US-China Climate Change Working Group has detailed nine action initiatives for transitioning to a low-carbon society through public and private sector engagement between the two countries

This is particularly important with regard to opportunities for US private sector investment in Chinese clean energy sector development. A world leader and innovator of many of these new technologies, the US will play a prominent role in helping China address its environmental recovery goals. Top Chinese leaders have reinforced these expectations, including sentiments from NDRC Vice Chairman Liu He, who is urging US companies to invest in new energy-efficient projects in China—spearheaded by the $3 billion Green Climate Fund.

US clean energy innovation and investment has the opportunity to go a long way in China—where dire environmental conditions have spurred increasingly ambitious efficient energy targets. Reminding his US counterparts of the long road ahead for achieving these goals, Chinese State Councilor Yang advocated China’s determination to go low-carbon. He noted that, while China’s “total emission is big, per capital emission is only one-third of developed countries.” Reiterating goals from China’s 13th Five-Year Plan, Yang explained that China will reduce carbon emissions by 18 percent, while non-fossil fuels will make up 15 percent of energy consumption. Yang explained that these commitments will offer “hundreds of billions of dollars of business opportunities.”

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Six new EcoPartnerships were unveiled at this year’s S&ED, offering stronger exchange of innovative science and engineering techniques between the US and China

Some of these mutual investment efforts are already underway, as this year’s S&ED featured the unveiling of six new EcoPartnerships—bringing together experts and innovators from US and Chinese cities, companies, universities, and NGOs to exchange practices and solutions on clean energy, climate change, and environmental protection. 36 partnerships have been established since the program began in 2008, and this year’s batch includes a variety of sustainable groupings that demonstrate the diversity of US-China subnational clean energy cooperation—as outlined by the US Department of State:

  1. Caterpillar Inc. and Shanghai Lingang Economic Development Group will create a smart remanufacturing demonstration center to facilitate the analysis of energy savings and utilization of remanufactured parts that can save up to 60% in energy and material costs.
  2. Chemical and Metal Technologies and CPI Yuanda Environmental-protection Engineering Company will reduce toxins from coal plant wastewater by removing mercury and heavy metals, with the expectation to meet or exceed the standards set through US EPA regulations.
  3. Minerals Technologies, Inc. and SunPaper will significantly reduce soil and ground water pollution by repurposing 100% of the lime mud used in the paper-making process.
  4. US Geological Service Wetland and Aquatic Research Center and the Beijing Forestry University will use scientific data to aid wetlands restoration of the Yangtze and foster better understanding of ecological processes in climate change and land-use conditions.
  5. University of Southern California and Bay Environmental Technology (Beijing) Corporation (Bayeco) will significantly decrease NOx, SOx, and VOCs from coal-fired combustion with the goal of increasing energy efficiency by 3-10% over existing technologies.
  6. UniEnergy Technologies and Rongke Power will accelerate the market adoption of the electrical energy storage system, which is a key component to significantly scaling and replicating smart grids and micro-grids using renewable energy technologies.
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The 8th S&ED has resulted in further commitments between the US and China to cooperatively address challenges posed by climate change

The S&ED has offered important new frameworks for tangible progress on climate and clean energy issues between the US and China. Nine new action initiatives and six new EcoPartnerships promise innovative and well-resourced projects that bring together experts from the two sides to create real solutions to the challenges of climate change. As Secretary Kerry stated last week, “this is a long-term investment for our people and for the people of the planet.” CCWG-led progress has the opportunity to continue great momentum on these issues in future years. This adds even more importance to the upcoming US presidential election, as Obama’s successor will have the responsibility of continuing—and further strengthening—bilateral progress between the US and China on climate issues through the annual S&ED.

Nonetheless, significant progress to date promises hope for the future, as the world’s two biggest polluters are demonstrating the ability to work proactively and cooperatively in their quest to overcome climate change—the great challenge of our generation. The S&ED has offered yet another productive step in gradual US-China bilateral progress on climate issues, a realm in which the two countries appear poised to show tremendous collaborative leadership for years to come.

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