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U.S.-China Climate Change Leadership: Five Ideas for a Common Agenda

China Reform Forum, Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs | September 29, 2009

As the United States and China prepare for a bilateral summit on climate change in November, a pair of think tanks—one from each country—said today they have identified five concrete, business-oriented steps their nations could take together to combat climate change while meeting energy needs.

China and the United States—the world's two largest carbon emitters—should identify a handful of "world critical" technologies that address energy production and climate change, according to the China Reform Forum, the Chinese think tank, and the Carnegie Council, a New York-based institution. The two countries should then jointly develop the technologies under a bilateral regime that promotes private investment, project development, and shared intellectual property rights.

Carnegie Council and China Reform Forum said they had developed the proposed measures by convening an expert working group in New York on August 28.

The group identified specific areas in which the two countries could cooperate. Participants at the meeting noted such cooperation will require developing deeper trust. They said, however, finding ways to cooperate will help to build that trust—a reinforcing process. The deeper the level of trust, the more ambitious and successful joint projects will be. Successful cooperation can depoliticize the issue of climate change, allowing U.S. politicians to sell the issue to their constituents and expand the prospects for future bilateral cooperation, participants said.

The two think tanks urged the United States and China to:

  1. Identify five to ten top "critical" technologies that would abate climate change while increasing needed energy supplies in the near to medium term;

  2. Establish a bilateral protocol to spur joint development of these technologies by encouraging investment, development, and protection of intellectual property rights;

  3. Embark on joint research, perhaps creating laboratories, to develop "leapfrog technologies" beyond the carbon footprint—such as hydrogen fuel cell vehicles or green buildings—with an eye toward harnessing entirely new infrastructures.

  4. Implement a joint pilot project in each country—such as carbon capture at a coal-fired electricity plant or smart electrical grid—at the local, state, or regional level.

  5. Support one another in creating and launching public education campaigns aimed at changing public opinion on climate change, strengthening the sense of individual responsibility, moving beyond a zero-sum notion of climate change obligations, and issuing a set of best practices.

The New York meeting, hosted by Booz & Company, a global management consulting firm, took place shortly after it was announced that President Barack Obama and President Hu Jintao of China would hold a summit meeting in Beijing in November ahead of the multilateral climate change talks in Copenhagen this December.

The China Reform Forum sent the delegation to New York City and included a People's Liberation Army major general and leading climate change and economics researchers. Conference participants hailed from two United Nations agencies, North American think tanks, universities, and corporations, including IBM and Booz & Company.

The Carnegie Council and the China Reform Forum said they plan to reconvene within one year in Beijing with two goals in mind: to further develop a common ethical understanding between the United States and China on climate change and other issues and to report back on the feedback from their networks on the five suggested areas of cooperation.

The meetings are the first steps in what both sides hope will be a strong, long-term, institutional relationship dedicated to the pursuit of common ethical approaches to problem solving.

To show international leadership on climate change the United States and China must overcome domestic mindsets suspicious of real burden-sharing. It was suggested that both countries should find ways to change public attitudes by, for example, recognizing, celebrating, and incentivizing green entrepreneurs.

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