Climate change knows no geopolitical boundaries. Increasingly, neither does science. So it might seem that a multilateral approach, one that capitalizes on the increasingly international structure of science, would be the best way to combat the problem. After all, as more researchers from more countries tackle global warming, the greater our chances of developing much-needed technological breakthroughs.
Yet the best route to those innovations may not be globe-wide research and development. It may well be preferable to concentrate such efforts in two countries: the United States and China. Indeed, as President Barack Obama reaches his 100th day in office, a vocal group of scientists and policymakers are calling for an unprecedented bilateral clean-energy initiative between the countries.
“We cannot solve the climate change problem without direct engagement between the United States and China,” says Joanna Lewis, a professor of science, technology, and international affairs at Georgetown University. Lewis also served as the research director for a report on the subject released in February by the Asia Society and the Pew Center for Climate Change, which argues that “the world will take a giant step forward in combating climate change” if the US and China can agree on a common research agenda. Given the political and economic ascendancy of the “fragile superpower,” there is growing recognition that the world has again become bipolar. When it comes to combating major crises, collaboration between the “G2” — the US and China — may be just as, if not more, important than alliances among the wider G-20 group of developed nations.
To be sure, larger global partnerships could help. Many European countries have been leaders in adopting clean energy, and several Asian countries have robust science capacities. Some climate initiatives plainly require widespread cooperation, like the upcoming United Nations Copenhagen summit this December. But battling climate change requires innovation, not just regulation, to foster cleaner economic growth.
With respect to innovation, the bilateral approach confers a number of advantages. The US and China are not just the world’s biggest emitters of greenhouse gases. They also maintain a heavy dependence upon coal, which accounts for at least two-thirds of electricity produced in China, and half in the US. Thus, the two nations share technological needs with each other more than with Europe. Carbon sequestration is one area of research in which the two countries could leverage their complementary strengths. Deborah Seligsohn, China program director of the World Resources Institute, says the US has been researching carbon capture and storage for longer, but that China has more involvement in its commercial community. Indeed, China is already moving ahead on multiple sequestration projects and hopes to first demonstrate the technology at a plant in Tianjin, whereas the United States shelved its similar FutureGen project in Illinois.
A collaboration could also split costs, speed research, and spread know-how in both directions. “I think there is a common assumption in the United States that we would send technology to China,” says Ernest Moniz, a physicist and director of MIT’s Energy Initiative. “But there is a complete lack of understanding of the level of advanced technology the Chinese have developed. We could get a lot more information quickly in terms of large-scale geological sequestration of carbon by collaborating on projects in China.”
Cooperation could prove fruitful in other areas as well. The Asia Society/Pew report suggests joint research into, among other things, wind power, a “smart” electrical grid, and solar power — where China is already the world’s leading manufacturer of photovoltaic cells, with 35 percent of the market.
Some experts are reluctant to endorse specific projects. “I’m a little skeptical about having the governments on both sides picking the technology winners,” says Chris Nielsen, executive director of the Harvard China Project, which fosters scientific collaboration. Nielsen says that “basic research and knowledge development” could be more productive. For one thing, Nielsen believes we need to better assess all the sources of China’s carbon emissions before pursuing top-down plans. From this perspective, however, bilateral scientific cooperation is still a priority.
But would such a partnership alienate other countries? “I don’t see a bilateral approach as a substitute for a multilateral approach, but as a facilitator of it,” says Georgetown’s Lewis. “We need both.” She says there is “much to learn” from places like Europe and Japan that are in some ways more advanced in terms of efficiency, public policy, and adoption of technologies. “But this would be precedent setting,” says Lewis. Others with foreign-relations experience concur. “As a diplomatic measure, if these two countries come to an understanding, it will help lead other countries to do the same,” says Susan Shirk, a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, and a former deputy assistant secretary of state specializing in Asian issues.
The G2 approach is certainly a goal of some key members of Obama’s inner circle, including Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a cochair of the Asia Society/Pew effort, and two more contributors to the report: John Holdren, Obama’s main science adviser, and Todd Stern, the special envoy for climate change. “Nothing is more important for dealing with this threat than a US-China partnership turning their full attention to it,” said Stern while visiting Beijing in February.
Still, numerous hurdles exist. Intellectual property rights would have to be negotiated if a project aimed to produce new technologies. Although, says Lewis, “you could have a situation where you are doing joint R&D with a joint intellectual property agreement. It’s messy, but we do it all the time. It’s a lot more complicated in biotechnology.” Beyond those agreements, China would have to enforce intellectual property rights, a longtime sticking point among US companies.
Then there are domestic politics. Shirk acknowledges a “legacy of suspicion” of China, in terms of politics, ideology, and strategy: “Some people tend to say we shouldn’t do anything until China does.” That could be an impediment for a consensus-seeking president. Conversely, she asserts that “getting China to move would be broadly appealing in the US,” and could constitute a victory for the White House.
Either way, China appears increasingly ready for action, with President Hu Jintao these days invoking a “harmonious society” that includes environmental concerns largely absent before he took power in 2003. “There is a vision that there’s going to be a new technology future, and China wants to be a part of it,” says Seligsohn. China also released its first climate change strategy in 2007. And while the document spreads culpability for warming among countries, it still outlines many future steps China can take, including “encouraging and recommending China’s scientists to participate in international R&D programs.”
Unlikely as a Sino-American partnership might seem, sheer necessity could ultimately compel the countries to pursue it. “The United States and China need to control carbon dioxide from coal use or frankly, the world cannot meet prudent greenhouse gas concentration goals, given the reality of our being far and away the two biggest users,” says Moniz. Indeed, the United States and China combine to produce 40 percent of the world’s CO2 emissions, according to the World Resources Institute. Russia ranks third, with just 6 percent.
That may be biggest reason of all to pursue the G2 path. The United States can count on European countries to be good global citizens. But as the world’s biggest polluters, the US and China carry the added burden — and the historic new opportunity — to align their interests. In Obama’s next 100 days in office, and on his visit to China later this year, the environment will be high on the agenda. Both countries have taken important recent turns toward grappling with climate change, but the moment is ripe for bolder action. “There is a lot of momentum for this in the US, a lot of people thinking about how to work with China,” says Shirk. “The Chinese are getting the message. The time is right for it now.”
Originally published April 29, 2009