How China and the United States Can Work Together to Tackle Global Climate Change

by Gao Hairan

Climate change is one of the most severe environmental and socioeconomic challenges faced by human beings today. It is also a key issue of sustainable development and closely related to biodiversity, poverty alleviation, and the transformation to a low-carbon development path. As the world’s largest economies and emitters of greenhouse gas emissions, China and the United States must work together more cooperatively and with other countries to combat climate change and to help the globe build a low-carbon future.

Anthropogenic GHGs emissions have had a huge impact on global warming since the Industrial Revolution. As such, curbing global climate change requires coordinated and coherent global action, as well as an overarching system that includes all major greenhouse gas emitters (GHGs) in the world. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and its Kyoto Protocol have been the cornerstone of international cooperation on tackling climate change since the 1990s.

Still, major political differences remain between developed and developing countries. Developed countries believe that the current international climate framework should evolve over time and be dynamic enough to reflect economic and geopolitical changes. Developing countries, on the other hand, insist that developed countries should continue to take the lead in GHGs emission reduction beyond 2020, and developing countries should make efforts to cut their GHGs emissions according to their capabilities. Furthermore, from the developing countries’ perspective, abandoning the UNFCCC and its Kyoto Protocol and redefining the principle of common but different responsibilities (CBDR) is not acceptable.

The current international political dilemma on combating climate change is twofold: first, how should we allocate valuable and limited GHGs emission space to various countries? And second, is this burden-sharing best accomplished through a top-down or a bottom-up approach? The former might accomplish this through an international, legally-binding agreement such as the UNFCCC and its Kyoto Protocol, and the latter through nationally determined, voluntary actions that may be related but not limited to countries’ QELROs, renewable energy development targets, poverty alleviation, and energy intensity.

Therefore, finding a common denominator is crucial to mobilizing global consensus and action to curb climate change. As negotiations continue, one possibility in 2015 would be a general agreement that combines both the top-down and bottom-up approaches. This could be facilitated through a robust international measurable, reportable, and verifiable (MRV) system with common accounting rules to ensure transparency and real emissions reductions by countries involved without undermining their long-term socioeconomic development or infringing upon national sovereignty. In addition, enhancing financial, technological, and capacity building support will also be key elements of any agreement, as they are of significant importance to help developing countries address climate change.

As the two top GHGs emitters, economies, and energy users in the world, the actions taken by China and the United States are crucial to the realization of the ultimate objective of the UNFCCC and sustainable development on a global scale. In 2013, the total fossil CO2 emissions of China and the United States accounted for more than forty percent of world fossil CO2emissions. Therefore, any successful effort to tackle climate change will need these two countries to work towards a solution either through the UNFCCC process or on a bilateral basis. Meanwhile, it also must be noted that China is different from the United States in various aspects, and should thus bear different responsibilities in tackling climate change. Recognizing the differences between the two countries politically will be helpful for effectively managing those differences, building a constructive partnership, and finding mutually acceptable approaches to cooperation without undermining their respective core national climate-related interests.

Cooperation between China and the United States under the UNFCCC could ensure a successful 2015 global pact on climate change and further solidify bilateral cooperation under the current China-U.S. Climate Change Working Group (CCWG). As for the UNFCCC process, both countries should demonstrate their political willingness and commitment to it for the protection of climate as a global public good. In terms of bilateral cooperation, issues of common interest may include short-lived climate forcers (SLCFs), shale gas, HFCs, nuclear technology, and the five thematic areas under the CCWG. The two countries must recognize that combating climate change, either through a UN-led multilateral process or on a bilateral basis, is of mutual interest to them, both economically and strategically.

By working together, China and the United States may also find new domestic opportunities, such as economic restructuring and rebalancing investment, finance, and trade between them. This could also help ensure energy security and economic prosperity while moving towards a low-carbon development path. China-U.S. cooperation on climate may also contribute to building new models of major power relations between them and mobilizing global political momentum. In this connection, regular, open, and targeted exchange, dialogue and negotiation mechanisms on climate and energy should be further explored and utilized to improve mutual understanding.

About the Author

Gao Hairan, Deputy Director and Assistant Professor, National Center for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation (NCSC), focuses on China-U.S. relations on climate change and South-South cooperation on climate change. Before joining the NCSC, Mr. Gao worked at the Energy Research Institute and the Department of Climate Change of the National Development and Reform Commission of China from 2005 to 2011, and has been a member of the Chinese delegation to the UNFCCC negotiations since 2006, with a focus on national communications of Non-Annex 1 Parties and response measures. Gao graduated from the GMAP Program at the Fletcher School in 2012.

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