The green dawn in U.S.-China relations




UNITED NATIONS, May 8 (Xinhua) -- In 2006, Forbes magazine named Shi Zhengrong, a little-known Chinese scientist, one of the world's billionaires. Three years later, his company, Suntech Power Holdings Ltd, is worth an estimated 6 billion U.S. dollars and stands as the world's fourth largest producer of solar panels.

    It is no coincidence that China is home to one of the world's leading solar energy companies. Recent legislation like the country's landmark 2005 Renewable Energy Law has contributed to China's rapid success in emerging renewable energy markets, Christopher Flavin, president of World Watch Institute, a think tank on sustainability based in Washington D.C., said in a recent phone interview with Xinhua.

    In fact, it is hard for environmental experts like Flavin not to be optimistic about China's initiative in combating climate change. The Chinese National Development and Reform Commission, the nation's top economic planning agency, said in early December that about 40 percent of China's 586-billion-U.S.-dollar stimulus package is allocated to "green" themes such as biological conservation, environmental protection, and transportation infrastructure, including rail and power grids.

    That expenditure dwarfs the 112 billion U.S. dollars worth of green initiatives contained in the 787-billion-dollar stimulus bill approved by the U.S. Congress this year.

    "China has seen the light," quipped Yvo de Boer, who is the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and has been involved in developing climate policy since 1994. "China has a much better understanding of how climate change will have an impact than it did 10 years ago."

    Historically, the United States has had the honor of being the largest contributor to greenhouse gases.

    Together, the United States and China account for over 40 percent of emissions worldwide, according to the International Energy Agency. As such, the world is watching how they each address climate change at home and how they will cooperate at an international level.


    Indeed, how the two countries move forward will significantly affect the fate of a post-Kyoto climate treaty, which is to be agreed upon by all 192 countries in Copenhagen during a meeting slated from Dec. 7 to 18.

    "During the next seven months, every country must take a position and understand all the potential elements for an agreement," Connie Hedgaard, the Danish minister for climate and energy and the chair of the Copenhagen meeting, told reporters this week at the United Nations headquarters in New York.

    Of particular importance, ministers from the Group of 8 will convene for four days at the end of June in Greenland – purposely chosen for its remote location, said Hedgaard, who was in New York this week advising UN Secretary-general Ban Ki-moon to ensure that political leaders be forced into the "crunch issues" -- highly contentious matters -- at meetings throughout the year, including the secretary-general's high-level conference in September.


    One such "crunch issue" is the threat of trade warfare, an issue that has recently crept into dialogue between China and the United States. In April, after China had requested that the country's export sector be exempt from greenhouse gas emissions reductions, U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu declared the possibility of levying a carbon dioxide tax on countries that do not meet U.S. emissions restrictions.

    American congressmen worry that if the United States adopts a tough emissions reduction policy and China does not, it will give China an economic advantage and will result in carbon leakage -- when there is an increase in carbon emissions in one country as a result of an emissions reduction by a second country with a strict climate policy.

    But the fear that a gap between China's and the United States' emissions standards will lead to a trade war with China is "overblown," said Flavin, who said the issue has more to do with politics than economics.

    "There's going to have to be some very careful negotiating between the U.S. and China," he said, but China has already begun building the foundations of its economy on high-tech equipment and consumer products, which are less carbon-intensive.

    In fact, argued Flavin, China already imposes an export tariff on highly energy-consuming goods, referring in part to the elimination of export tax rebates for 553 resource-intensive products, such as cement, fertilizer and non-ferrous metals.

    Meanwhile, in the United States, a carbon price of 15 U.S. dollars per ton would only affect energy-intensive industries shipped out internationally -- a narrow segment of the U.S. economy, according to a report released on Wednesday by the independent Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

    The report's authors argue that in the long run, the most effective strategy to safeguard against any impacts on competitiveness is an effective international climate framework.


    Any such an international treaty would require a global commodity price for carbon, said Hedgaard, but until December when/if an agreement is finalized, both China and the United States are in a unique position to lead the international community, and their own economies, toward greener alternatives.

    In February, the Pew Center and the Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations published a report based on input from 50 of the world's leading scientists, experts from China, as well as political and business leaders.

    "The U.S.-China Roadmap" project, of which Chu was co-chair before he became U.S. energy secretary, suggests a number of ways collaboration can provide immediate economic stimulus in the two countries, while simultaneously laying the foundation for low-carbon economies.

    Recommendations on Sino-U.S. collaboration include deploying low-emissions coal technologies, developing an advanced electric grid through smart-grid technologies, and promoting renewable energy, like bio-fuels, solar, and wind.

    According to the World Watch Institute, China's wind resources alone are sufficient to provide more electricity than the country currently consumes. In 2008, China was a close second to the United States in terms of wind power capacity but based on current trends, Flavin believes continued progress is inevitable.

    "China was almost off the charts in having virtually no wind energy industry as recently as five or six years ago," he said, and now suddenly, "China is right on the verge of being number one in the world ... and is on course to really dominate the industry five years from now."