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4 Promising Themes Emerge in U.S.-China Agreements at Strategic and Economic Dialogue

This post originally appeared on WRI's ChinaFAQs blog.

This has been a big week for U.S.-China collaboration on climate change. Yesterday the U.S.-China Climate Change Working Group (CCWG), which was established in April by the Joint Statement on Climate Change, presented their report on bilateral cooperation between the two countries. Not only does it lay out actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a close reading sheds light on important themes for the future of U.S.-China collaboration on climate change.

The report centers on five separate “action initiatives.” to address key drivers of greenhouse gas emissions in both countries. The U.S. and China make up more than 40 percent of global CO2 emissions, so significant collaboration between the countries is absolutely essential to addressing the problem. The five areas that the report singles out include: vehicle emissions; smart grids; carbon capture, utilization and storage; greenhouse gas data collection and management; and building and industry energy efficiency.

Although the report is built around these five initiatives, four big themes can also be seen:

Multiple Benefits

One important theme throughout the report is an emphasis on co-benefits that come as a result of taking action on climate change. As a recent ChinaFAQs issue brief discusses in detail, China and other countries have powerful self-interests in acting on climate change in addition to avoiding climate change impacts. Although reducing carbon dioxide emissions and avoiding climate change’s worst effects is clearly a main goal, the report makes considerable mention of side benefits such as “enhanced energy security, reduced air pollution, … conservation of important natural resources … [and] promot[ion] of economic prosperity and job creation.” In fact, the entire U.S.-China bilateral relationship is listed as a potential co-benefit of action on climate change, with the report saying, “advancing concrete action on climate change can serve as a pillar of our bilateral relationship.”

Domestic Action in Tandem

Another interesting aspect of the report is the integration of bilateral cooperation with the implementation of each country’s domestic plans. Both countries now have national plans for addressing climate change, which, if fully implemented, could help slow the rise of global greenhouse gas emissions. However, even more ambitious action is needed to truly avoid the dangerous impacts of climate change. The CCWG report offers the prospect of an area of expanded cooperation, where the U.S. and China work together not only on joint projects, but also on better implementation of domestic plans in both countries. For example, for the energy efficiency action initiative, “both sides commit to intensify their efforts,” and cooperation will focus on using each other’s experiences to bolster these domestic efforts. For the vehicle emissions initiative, the two countries will also work together through technological exchanges on efficiency standards and emissions standards, while working towards implementing their own domestic policies.

The International Arena Is Crucial

An important point to note in the CCWG report is that a strengthened bilateral relationship between the United States and China on climate is being framed as a part of the road towards a 2015 global agreement on climate change. This will be done by building trust between the two countries, and therefore building more confidence in the negotiations. The report specifically notes, “the importance of our own constructive contributions for the success of such negotiations,” and the two countries declare that they will, “work closely with other countries in developing this agreement in the period prior to its scheduled completion in 2015.”

Along with reaffirming a commitment to a 2015 agreement, the two countries also discuss expanding international climate outreach in other ways. The first instance is the idea of creating new models for greenhouse gas data management that could apply to other countries. A second instance is in exploring additional bilateral cooperation in the realm of helping “least developed countries, small island developing states, and African countries to build their capacity to address climate change.”

Just the Beginning

Perhaps the most important thing to note, as is emphasized throughout the report, is that this will be just the beginning of a new phase in U.S.-China cooperation on climate issues. The CCWG is designed to serve as a new pillar of the bilateral relationship. It will “continue to serve as a high-level forum to coordinate the new action initiatives outlined in this Report, develop recommendations for new action initiatives and enhance the policy dialogue on the multilateral climate negotiations process as well as on domestic climate policy in the two countries.”

The implementation plans for the five action initiatives are to be completed by October of 2013, so there is plenty of work still to be done. The action initiatives have been selected with an eye toward future expansion and a pivot to low-carbon energy, which will be an ongoing process. Significantly, the plan calls for the “transition from research to commercial-scale demonstration” of CCUS, with the United States and China cooperating to “overcome previous barriers to CCUS deployment by implementing several integrated CCUS projects in both countries.” The CCWG will also work on carrying forward the joint effort to phase out the use of HFCs that was announced in June.

Finally, the working group will continue to look for new ways to expand cooperation on climate and clean energy issues. One important example that is discussed is that of sub-national carbon markets, and the potential for collaboration between states, cities, and provinces in both countries.

The CCWG has made a good start with its report. Now is the time for the United States and China to build on this momentum and develop solid, ambitious implementation plans. Only then can this agreement really set the stage for long-term, globally resonant U.S.-China climate action.

  • LEARN MORE: ChinaFAQs will provide periodic updates as the CCWG moves forward. A summary of previous U.S.-China collaborative efforts on climate change and clean energy, along with ideas for collaboration that the CCWG could adopt in the future, can be found in our fact sheet: U.S.-China Collaboration: Can They "Inspire the World"?

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