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Clean Energy Forum Seeks Further Benefits From U.S.-China Cooperation

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While champagne glasses were clinking at the White House state dinner for Chinese President Hu Jintao, senior officials, academic experts and industry leaders from China and the United States were discussing clean energy cooperation at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel near the Jefferson Memorial. In two days of sessions at the U.S.-China Strategic Forum on Clean Energy Cooperation hosted by The Brookings Institution and the China Institute for Innovation & Development Strategy, participants reported on progress, announced business deals, and discussed next steps.

Setting the Scene

The tone for the conference was set by the opening speakers. U.S. Ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman, who said he believes that cooperation between the United States and China in the clean energy revolution “will dramatically expand high-quality jobs, living standards, and our economy.” He went on to say: “If either country wants to succeed, both countries will have to work together.”

Zheng Bijian, Chairman, China Institute of Strategy and Management, said that “the Chinese and American economies are mutually complimentary and interdependent.” He stressed that China-U.S. cooperation on clean energy can “expand and deepen the convergence of interests” between the two countries.

The Benefits of Cooperation

During the conference, speakers from both the United States and China talked of the challenges of shifting to cleaner energy, recognizing that the dynamic between the two countries involves both competition and cooperation. John Holdren, White House Assistant for Science and Technology, bluntly pointed out that we are currently powering our economies in ways that threaten the climate. He warned that delaying action to address this is dangerous.

Both Holdren and Assistant Secretary of Energy, David Sandalow, explained that there are many reasons for the United States to support cooperation, including sharing costs and risks, exchanging ideas, and gaining experience from the large and expanding Chinese market. Sandalow cited the U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center (CERC), with its initial focus on building energy efficiency, advanced coal, and electric vehicles, as an example of this type of cooperation.

Read more: White House summary of clean energy, climate change and environment outcomes from the summit

The Business View

A highlight of the conference was a panel presentation by leaders of major companies from both countries. Chinese speakers talked of closing inefficient plants, pursuing bilateral cooperation on research and development of carbon dioxide capture and storage, and complementary capabilities in developing advanced nuclear power.

During the Q&A session, someone asked the American CEOs what they would tell the new Congress about cutting funding for clean energy cooperation. Michael Morris, the Chairman and CEO of American Electric Power, suggested it would be a mistake to cut those programs. Leaning into the microphone, Jim Rogers, President and CEO of Duke Energy, suggested that the cooperation will lower costs of deploying clean energy technology in the United States and that funding for collaboration should be increased, not cut.

In after-dinner remarks, U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu explained the formation of his perspective on how competitors can benefit from collaboration. Describing his roots as a researcher, the Nobel laureate said that as his career progressed he came to believe that he could achieve more through collaboration, than acting alone -- even if it meant sharing the credit.

Looking forward

Kenneth Lieberthal, Director of the John L. Thornton China Center at Brookings and ChinaFAQs expert, moderated the conference and provided some useful thoughts on why cooperation is important and what is next. Lieberthal captured the far reaching implications of U.S.-China clean energy cooperation, saying that together the two countries “can produce innovative technologies and scale them up far more rapidly and inexpensively than either side can alone.” This collaboration could result in increased investment, more jobs, and new sources of profit, along with greenhouse gas reductions. In his words, clean energy cooperation could help generate “enhanced trust based on mutual interests.” (Read Lieberthal’s full Op-Ed in the L.A. Times)

The conference speakers and discussions came back frequently to the theme that clean energy is not a zero-sum game but rather an undertaking where the U.S. and China can do better working together, reaping benefits in jobs, growth and emissions reductions. Beyond that was the suggestion that if wisely pursued, clean energy collaboration can be a stabilizing force, potentially strengthening overall relationships between the two countries.

For more, Barbara Finamore of NRDC (also a ChinaFAQs expert) summarizes the events of the summit relating to clean energy in a recent post on her blog.

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