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Three Ways U.S.-China Conflict Is Helping on Climate Change

By Marianne Lavelle (National Geographic) - December 11, 2013

The state-run air quality monitoring station in Beijing isn’t new. It has been operating since 1974. But last year for the first time, it began to make public hourly pollution data across the 6,500 square miles of China that the station covers, readings that often have spelled bad news for the 25 million people in and around the capital. China began releasing data from other cities earlier this year. (See related, “Harbin Smog Crisis Highlights China’s Coal Problem.”)

Beijing’s air quality monitoring station was the first stop Monday for Gina McCarthy, the top U.S. environmental official, in a weeklong trip to China for talks on how the world’s top two greenhouse gas polluters can work together to tackle climate change.

With no global treaty to reduce carbon emissions in sight, the trip is an effort by President Barack Obama’s administration to demonstrate that efforts at bilateral cooperation hold promise. But headlines leading up to McCarthy’s visit seemed to send a different message, with the financial center of Shanghai so shrouded in acrid haze last week that schools were closed, flights were canceled, vehicles were ordered off the road, and factories were powered down.

Levels of PM 2.5—the particles smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter that pose grave respiratory health risk—were more than 24 times higher than the limit recommended by the World Health Organization. (See related story: “Coal Burning Shortens Lives in China, New Study Shows.”) The levels also indicate off-the-charts coal and diesel fuel burning that has helped China overtake the United States as the world’s top source of carbon dioxide emissions, with per capita emissions now closing in on those of Europe. (See interactive map, “Four Ways of Looking at Global Carbon Footprints.”)

Given the seriousness of China’s pollution problems and its imperative to extend jobs and energy to its 1.4 billion people, what hope is there for progress on climate through collaboration with the United States, its top customer for its goods as well as one of its key economic rivals? (See related story: “Climate Change Action Could Save 500,000 Lives Annually, Study Says.”)

McCarthy and other U.S. officials see hope in three key areas.

Truth-Telling on Air Pollution

McCarthy blogged that the Beijing monitoring station was an important stop on her tour because of the role of information and understanding as a “first necessary step” in developing a long-term climate strategy. An indirect prod from the United States prompted China to begin releasing its own hourly air pollution data last year; the move followed controversy that erupted over the U.S. embassy monitoring Beijing air quality and tweeting the readings.

The U.S. embassy was aiming to inform its own personnel in the capital, but the resulting change in Chinese government practices could change that nation’s dynamic on environmental protection, McCarthy said in a speech last week on the eve of her trip at the Center for American Progress. “We know public outcry in the 1950s and the 1960s led to significant change,” the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator said. “China also is facing significant public outcry . . . The good news is we have been there before. We know the technologies that are available, and we know what planning can do. We think they can learn lessons from us and leap frog, and do it in a way that they can continue to build a clean energy economy.” (See related, “Climate Change: China Puts Kibosh on New Coal Plants.”)

Ramping Up Renewable Energy

Although coal fuels 70 percent of China’s energy consumption, the state has invested aggressively in renewable energy to meet its 12th Five-Year Plan’s goals of increasing non-fossil energy to 11.4 percent, up from 8.3 percent in 2010. (See related Quiz: What You Don’t Know About World Energy.) One of China’s tools in this drive—big government subsidies for renewable energy developers—has stirred ire among some manufacturers and unions in the United States and Europe, who have charged that they are employing an unfair trade practice that put other countries’ renewable industries at a disadvantage. The European Union just last week reached an agreement to curb Chinese solar panel imports in an effort to settle the dispute. Over the past year, the U.S. and China each have slapped tariffs on the other over the solar energy dispute.

Even as the trade dispute is playing itself out, worldwide prices for solar panels have been plummeting in part because of the effort of the world’s leading renewable energy investor, China, with more than $66 billion in spending last year. Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, believes it is significant that China appears to have doubled its pace of renewable capacity in the first ten months of this year. “As a response to their air pollution challenge they have significantly increased their renewable goals in recent months,” Schmidt blogged. “We expect even more renewable energy action to be unveiled in the coming months.” (See related interactive, “World Electricity Mix.”)

Cutting Refrigeration Gas Pollution

Hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, are super-potent greenhouse gases used to cool both people and food. And they are becoming a significant contributor to climate change, due to staggering growth in air-conditioning, refrigeration, and insulation in China. The gases are substitutes for the ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, that were banned by the Montreal Protocol. For the past four years, the United States, Canada, and Mexico have been proposing an amendment to the Montreal pact to phase down production and consumption of HFCs, but China refused to address the issue due to concerns the move would impede the nation’s economic growth.

But when President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in California this summer, the two signed a little-heralded agreement to work together for the first time on phasing down production and consumption of HFCs. Such a phase-down could reduce 90 gigatons of CO2 equivalent by 2050, equal to eliminating roughly two years worth of current global greenhouse gas emissions, and buying the world more time to address the far more difficult task of reducing fossil fuel emissions. In her speech last week, McCarthy cited the HFC agreement as a key example of U.S.-China climate cooperation.

Certainly, the U.S.-China rivalry also might get in the way of progress on climate change. The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, the U.S. coal industry group that has been critical of EPA policy to reduce coal emissions from U.S. power plants, blasted McCarthy’s views on China. (See related, “Amid U.S.-China Energy Tension, “Clean Coal” Spurs Teamwork.”) “McCarthy’s optimism about China—the world’s largest polluter—adopting similarly stringent policies as the United States to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions is also especially troubling and represents yet another example of the Administration’s global crusade to take coal offline,” said ACCCE spokeswoman Laura Sheehan in a statement.

McCarthy acknowledged conflict between the two nations, but said it was crucial that both act on climate change. “We know there’s economic competition between the two—that’s healthy—but we do share the same climate and we are well positioned to begin to work together in greater depth.” (See related “Pictures: A Rare Look Inside China’s Energy Machine.”)