U.S. President Barack Obama (L) and China’s President Xi Jinping reach out to shake hands at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on November 12, 2014. Photo by Mandel Ngan—AFP/Getty Images, originally posted on ChinaFile.

Originally posted on ChinaFile, on September 18, 2015.  

With just over a week to go before Chinese President Xi Jinping begins his first State Visit to the United States, there is much evidence to suggest that bilateral action to fight climate change is an area most ripe for meaningful Sino-U.S. cooperation. What’s on the table? What form might further breakthrough take? If there is progress, how could it affect the U.S.-China relationship more broadly? What’s possible? What’s likely to happen?—The Editors

Response from Junjie Zhang:

The U.S.-China climate collaboration is aligned with the self interests of both countries. On the U.S. side, the Obama Administration is pushing the unprecedented regulation of coal-fired power plants. This initiative is perhaps the last opportunity for President Obama to craft his climate change abatement legacy. In order to gain domestic support, it is instrumental to leverage the climate actions of other major emitters. Since China accounts for over a quarter of global carbon emissions, working with China is crucial for the U.S. to achieve its climate target.

As for China, the incentive for climate mitigation is not only from international pressures but also due to its own need to reduce energy consumption and improve air quality. As a middle-income country, climate change is not a top priority for the Chinese government. However, since energy security and environmental pollution are closely related to carbon emissions, these co-benefits convince China to engage in increasingly aggressive mitigation efforts. By collaborating with the U.S., China can learn from the U.S. experience how to grow the economy while curbing climate and air pollutants.

The U.S. and China have made solid progress as climate change has become an important topic in all the recent meetings between the presidents. The bilateral climate collaboration started from an area that has the least impact on the economy. During the Sunnylands Summit in 2013, two countries agreed to limit the production and consumption of climate-damaging hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). The climate diplomacy then achieved a landmark success during the 2014 APEC meeting in Beijing, when China promised to peak its carbon emissions by 2030. The momentum of the U.S.-China climate collaboration continues. In the highly anticipated State Visit in late September, presidents Obama and Xi are likely to focus on more detailed action plans, probably promoting sub-national level climate collaboration.

Climate change is one of the few areas that the U.S. and China can achieve successful collaboration. As the rivalry between two countries has intensified in recent years, mutually beneficial climate collaboration can be an important step stone to improve bilateral relationship. By working together to reduce climate pollutants, both countries not only contribute to the protection of global climate but also send a positive signal to build a healthy U.S.-China relationship.

Climate change has become one of the few areas that the US and China can improve bilateral relationship.

Response from Joanna Lewis:

Climate change will no doubt be on the agenda for President Xi’s U.S. visit next week, not only because it has become one of the most constructive aspects of the U.S.-China relationship, but also because the December Paris climate meeting looms large. Last November’s U.S.-China Joint Climate Announcement helped to change the tone of the international climate negotiations in Lima last December for the better. The targets announced last November already have been submitted by both countries to the UNFCCC, and it is unlikely that they will change before Paris. Heading into Paris, there are, however, still many areas where U.S.-China agreement could have a significant impact.

Aside from providing better clarity on areas of agreement related to negotiation topics that will likely be major sticking points in the run up to Paris, the other core area for new agreements would provide subnational context to the national targets that both countries have pledged. This week’s “” in Los Angeles was a great example of how this can be done well. The announcements from the Summit were about implementation. While both countries have adopted aggressive national targets and policies, implementation ultimately must occur at the local level. It is therefore crucial to have local government leaders on board. The international community may remain skeptical of high-level pledges without the added transparency that comes with allocating national targets to provinces and cities.

China is a large country with quite a bit of heterogeneity, and different provinces are at different levels of development. To allow the poorer provinces to continue to fuel their growing economies with coal, the wealthier provinces will have to peak earlier so that overall national emissions can peak by 2030. The “” (APPC) announced in Los Angeles is notable in that together the emissions of the 11 cities that have agreed to peak their emissions before 2030 are roughly equivalent to the total emissions of Japan or Brazil. The earliest peaks will come from Beijing, Guangzhou, and Zhenjiang, which have all announced that they will achieve a peaking of CO2 emissions by 2020, or 10 years before the national goal. However, these are all wealthier cities with declining shares of heavy industry. These cities are best positioned to lead the way, and to serve as demonstrations for many of the policy tools and technologies that eventually will need to be scaled throughout the country. But it is still crucial that the rest of the country follows suit sooner rather than later, and bringing interior and rural China in line with the achievements of the APPC cities will not be easy.

This is where expanded local cooperation can be quite important. Local level cooperation can help train local government officials on innovative ways to reduce emissions, and can be tailored to the specific circumstances of the region. It was great to see some of the work of the leading NGOs and research institutes that have been working on the ground in China for years be recognized in the bilateral agreements announced in Los Angeles. High-level endorsement of climate and energy cooperation is crucial, but ultimately it is in the cities and provinces, where the rubber meets the road. Local level cooperation is therefore an area that is ripe for expanded cooperation.

Response from Li Shuo:

President Xi Jinping’s state visit will no doubt be an important date on any climate watcher’s calendar. Last November’s joint statement on climate change elevated the issue to a new height and gave the world a positive surprise. The agreement was important in two regards. First, ahead of the United Nations’ timeline, the two biggest emitters gave the world a preview of their intended post-2020 climate actions. China, for the first time, indicated its intention to peak its emissions. Second,
a new formulation of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR) was agreed upon by adding in the language of “in light of different national circumstances.” This exact language was introduced into the
subsequent U.N. decision in Lima. This effectively cleared the biggest stumbling block for the negotiation in the run up to Paris.

However, the upcoming climate statement will likely not be as significant as last year’s, partly because the biggest cards are already on the table. However, this does not mean there will be any shortage of horse-trading or important political signals. Despite the new guidance on CBDR, negotiators are still struggling with how to interpret it in different aspects of the future global climate regime, and other issues such as climate finance. Thus, the The Xi-Obama meeting is a good opportunity to align the two countries on some of these issues, to reassure each other about the delivery of their targets with enhanced domestic policies and new bilateral initiatives. The final outcome of these talks is expected to further guide the U.N. talks.

The fact that the climate change discussion is relatively immune to the overall complicated bilateral atmosphere is also worth mentioning. Over the past two years, the two sides have dedicated considerable political attention in making climate cooperation a success. The pace, approach, and politics of each side’s domestic climate policy is bound to the other’s in an unprecedented way. With this in mind, strategists on the two sides should already be thinking about how to carry the valuable progress not only “to” Paris but “through” Paris, into the Post-Obama period, and also into other important bilateral discussions which have not seen as much progress.

Response from Angel Hsu:

Cooperation between cities in the United States and China through the Alliance of Peaking Pioneer Cities (APPC) will have global implications for the upcoming Paris climate negotiations in December. The most recent of national pledges submitted to the , representing around 65 percent of global emissions, show national government efforts are inadequate. The actions of non-state and sub-national actors, including cities, are therefore even more critical to filling in the gap between national pledges and what is needed to avoid catastrophic climate change. What’s promising about the APPC pledges is that the 29 combined cities represent only 4 percent of the global population but 12 percent of global GDP. Major cities in China, including Beijing and Shenzhen, which so far are among the most active cities in China on climate change, are demonstrating ambitious leadership by pledging to a 2020 peak year—a decade before the nationally-committed peak year. With the U.N. Climate Week taking place next week (Sept. 21-26) in New York City, the APPC announcement could not have been more timely to galvanize cities in other countries to step up to fill in needed gaps.

Equally important in the APPC pledge is the agreement for participating cities to publish greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). So far, no regular reporting of carbon emissions data exists in China, at the national level and certainly not at the city level. A few of my colleagues and I commented on the need for this critical data in a recent , given the global contribution of China’s emissions. The availability of these data, and cooperation between cities in the U.S. and China to develop them, will be a major step forward in reducing uncertainties that plague global estimation of how close or far we are to reaching critical limits for temperature rise.

As Junjie Zhang mentioned above, climate change and environmental issues are areas where the United States and China have had relative success in cooperation. Hopefully the success in these new local and sub-national partnerships will yield trickle-over to other areas not only of U.S.-China cooperation, but also beyond for other countries to adopt similar models.

Response from Barbara A. Finamore:

In their joint climate agreement last November, Presidents Xi and Obama made major progress, both in committing to reduce CO2 emissions and in advancing the international climate negotiations. President Xi’s imminent trip to the U.S. presents another vital opportunity for the world’s two largest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitters to show climate leadership in the run-up to Paris.

One area of potential cooperation that would be ripe for a major announcement is mitigation of non-CO2 greenhouse gases. Short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs), such as black carbon, methane, nitrous oxides and HFCs, not only warm the atmosphere but are also linked with the severe air pollution affecting China.

According to an expert Chinese and international team that has been meeting in Beijing under the auspices of the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development (CCICED), recent scientific assessments have identified that the fast implementation of some key SLCP measures in specific sectors can have significant benefits by reducing the rate and degree of warming in the near–term (i.e. over the next few decades), providing substantial health benefits by lowering PM2.5 and ground-level ozone concentrations, and avoiding significant losses in the yields of many important crops in China. Action in China will not only benefit environmental conditions and development in China, but will also provide global climate benefits, including in the Arctic, and air quality benefits in neighboring countries and over the northern hemisphere.

China is taking major steps to control air pollution through regulation of SO2 and NOX emissions, including under its recently amended Air Pollution Prevention and Control Law. These measures are a top priority and essential to reduce human health impacts. Yet these pollutants also have a cooling effect on the climate, so unless these emission reductions are accompanied by a reduction in short-lived climate pollutants, they would lead to accelerated near-term warming in China and globally. The SLCP approach is the only way to reduce the near-term warming and counteract this effect, making an SLCP strategy especially crucial for China.

China is already taking some actions to reduce SLCPs, through both domestic policies and international programs, including reducing its production and consumption of the ozone depleting substance HCFC-22 under the umbrella of the Montreal Protocol; supporting the continued destruction of the super-GHG HFC-23, which is a byproduct of HCFC-22 production; and promoting climate-friendly refrigerants to replace high-global warming potential HFC refrigerants. Further U.S.-China cooperation could help identify gaps in SCLP implementation and promote earlier and deeper implementation of key measures that would address global warming and air pollution in the most effective way. This would include measures to reduce methane emissions in the oil and gas, waste and agriculture sectors; cooperation on policies and standards for phasing down consumption of HFCs and replacing them with climate-friendly refrigerants; and measures to reduce black carbon from a variety of sources, including diesel engines in on-road and non-road vehicles and vessels, residential use of coal and solid biomass fuels, inefficient coal combustion in small-scale industry, and the open burning of agriculture waste.

Another major climate announcement from the U.S. and China, such as an agreement for cooperation on mitigation of non-CO2 greenhouse gases, could serve to galvanize the upcoming Paris climate negotiations while highlighting one of the bright spots in the U.S.-China relationship.