Climate change: the great unifier

Updated: 2014-06-13 11:25

By Qidong Zhang (China Daily USA)

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Almost two years ago, China and the state of California signed a first-of-its-kind agreement to cooperate on climate change issues. Now the two are sharing their experience, research and personnel, QIDONG ZHANG reports from San Francisco.

A nationwide poll of Americans released this week showed by an almost two-to-one margin that they are willing to bear the costs of combating climate change.

By 62 percent to 33 percent, respondents said they would pay more for energy if it would mean a reduction in pollution from carbon emissions, according to the Bloomberg National Poll published on Tuesday.

"It is a rare poll where people responding will stand up and say 'tax me,'" said J. Ann Selzer, founder of Des Moines, Iowa-based Selzer & Co, which conducted the June 6-9 poll of 1,005 US adults that had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

While Americans support taking action on climate change, 53 percent in the survey said they doubt President Barack Obama's assertion that a reduction of soot and smog will lead to substantial health benefits.

"It's not going to work unless the rest of the world is going to do it, too," said Betty Wieland, 77, a retired nurse from Modesto, California. "China is more than making up for anything we do in climate change."

Climate change: the great unifier

But Wieland's home state of California - the world's eighth largest economy - and China - the world's second-largest - are working together on climate problems.

It was in September 2013 that China and California signed a two-year agreement to cooperate on climate change issues. The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed by Governor Jerry Brown, and China's National Development and Reform Commission Vice-Chairman, Xie Zhenhua.

The agreement followed more than a year and a half of diplomatic and business exchanges between California and China, including Brown's trade and investment mission to China, the opening of the California-China Office of Trade and Investment in Shanghai and Brown's meeting with China's President Xi Jinping.

"I see the partnership between China and California as a catalyst, and as a lever to change policies in the United States and, ultimately, to change policies throughout the world," Brown said just before signing the agreement.

Under the agreement, China and California would share expertise and experience on low carbon development and emissions trading. The document defines "areas of cooperation" between the countries, and includes pledges to undertake cooperative research on clean technology, as well as exchange personnel between them.

"Climate change is a global problem that has proved incredibly difficult to solve at an international level. By demonstrating the mutual commitment of California and China, two of the world's largest economies, our collaboration can serve as a catalyst for other agreements and ultimately change policies in the United States and throughout the world," Wade Crowfoot, senior adviser to California Governor Jerry Brown, told China Daily in an email.

California has a record of adopting ambitious strategies to combat climate change. Its per capita energy consumption has been almost flat since the 1970s, and it started trading its state carbon emissions with the launch of a cap and trade system in November 2012.

China is the world's fastest growing economy and, along with the United States, is a leading producer of emissions. Despite aggressive measures by the Chinese government to reduce pollution, heavy smog often hangs over major cities in China. Air pollution in cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Xi'an and Guangzhou has exceeded World Health Organization (WHO) air quality guidelines.

Sean Randolph, president of the San Francisco Bay Area Council Economy Policy Institute, said that California and China share a unique opportunity in the fields of environmental protection, and clean and renewable energy.

"This dates in part to California's experience since the 1960s, when dense smog blanketed the Los Angeles basin, impairing visibility and lowering air quality. Remedial measures since then have yielded dramatic improvements in regional air quality, with emission control policies now being implemented on a statewide basis," he said in an email to China Daily.

"California has also led the United States in the development of energy efficiency standards, a policy set that has led to falling per capacity energy consumption in California over time, while energy consumption per capita has been rising nationally. This experience is being shared with China through the work of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's China Energy Group," Randolph said.

'Important pathway'

"Climate change offers an additional and very important pathway for cooperation between California and China, based on shared interests in reducing its causes and managing its effects. This, of course, is closely related to the development and deployment of alternative (non-fossil) energy technologies, and improvements in energy efficiency at all levels."

Randolph said that while California leads the US in these fields, implementation is a work in progress:

"Climate change is a global issue, and leaders in the state recognize that a solution can only happen through global cooperation. It is clear that in the end California's climate policies cannot be successful unless they are coordinated with major partners such as China that are large energy consumers and CO2 emitters. The fact that a significant amount of the airborne pollution in California crosses the Pacific from China only strengthens the case for environmental cooperation."

Steve Westly, former California state controller and managing partner of the Westly Group, said China installed 14GW of wind power generation and 12 GW of solar power generation last year, compared to 1GW of wind and 4.3 GW of solar in the US.

"China is the world's largest producer of hydro-electric power. Coal power still accounts for 65 percent of all energy consumed in China. The Chinese government's goal is to double wind power capacity by 2020 - that is a model the rest of the world would be smart to follow," said Westly.

Richard Kramlich, chairman and co-founder of New Enterprise Associates (NEA), a venture capital firm that has invested more than $500 million in China, said solutions to air pollution are straightforward and simple but they require government action, including: quit coal, establish clear, strict air quality standards and introduce effective policy instruments to curb the rapid growth of the number of vehicles on the roads.

"There are many intermediate solutions for air pollution, but all of which require government to recognize the impact of air pollution on public health and the economy, and to take immediate action. The Chinese government has made tremendous effort at this point, and with joint effort from US and China's high-tech breakthroughs, it will improve but it just takes time. Electric cars should definitely be encouraged via incentive policies in China, and coal mines should be eventually eliminated," said Kramlich.

Kramlich's top priorities include: tightening controls for power plant emissions to reduce emissions, introducing cleaner fuel standards and switching to electric vehicles, restricting the construction of power plants and other energy-intensive industries near residential areas, improve urban planning to increase green spaces, and taking air quality into consideration when conducting environmental assessments for major projects; for example, flyovers and highways should be far away from residential areas.

Increasing distrust

Robert Wu, chairman of the US-China Green Energy Council, said although new EPA regulations have stimulated many Silicon Valley green-energy innovations in the industries of IT, mobile communications, cloud computing and big data analysis, both the US and China are facing extreme weather conditions, and there is an increasing distrust of each other and blame on how to handle this world issue.

"Both countries should look at the big picture and grasp opportunities to collaborate as the world is facing the biggest challenge of global warming, degrading living environment. We are both the largest polluters in the world, but we have to join hands to attack climate change and meet the challenge. In the process we will learn to respect each other, trusting each other and form a win-win team to fight for the welfare of mankind," said Wu.

Randolph of the Bay Area Council said meetings with Chinese officials during California Governor Jerry Brown's April 2013 trip to China particularly focused on issues of climate and energy, and the opportunity to share experience.

"A number of MOUs signed during and after the trip laid the groundwork for future cooperation. These include an agreement with the Ministry of Environmental protection to cooperate on air pollution reduction, an MOU on enhanced cooperation in low carbon development with the government of Guangdong Province, an MOU on environmental cooperation between the California Environmental Protection Agency and the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau, and an MOU with the China Chamber of Commerce for Import and Export of Machinery and Electronic Products to create a Pacific Clean Air Partnership. These agreements create a unique platform for future exchanges to address shared concerns and opportunities.

Great interest

Robert B. Weisenmiller, chair of California's Energy Commission, is one of the key people working with China on the climate issue.

"The Chinese government is very interested in working with us on climate change-related issues, especially when it comes to introducing green-energy technology, green-house energy, and addressing solutions of air pollution, air quality in China," he said on June 5 in San Francisco at a panel discussion on the partnership between California and China.

"We have been working on different MOUs with Guangdong province, Beijing Environmental protection bureau, Ministry of Environmental Protection, Jiangsu province, Shenzhen city and even Shandong province of last week, and will have to make sure it's implemented in California."

Matthew Rodriquez, who was appointed California's secretary for environmental protection by Brown in 2011, oversees the California Air Resources Board, the department of Toxic Substances Control, the department of Pesticide Regulation, the office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, and the Water Resources Control Board. As a member of Brown's cabinet, he advises the governor on environmental policy.

"When we were in China, every meeting we had with Chinese government and organizations, the issue of climate was brought up. I think the mutual understanding is there, it's just a matter of how we could combine resources of the two countries to make it happen. With our experience in the past, I believe we can work together to help China make the transition from making coal at the provincial and city levels, and I believe we could embrace challenges and opportunities better," he said at the panel discussion.

"Our agreements with China have led to productive, substantive exchanges across a range of areas, from energy efficiency to renewable energy to emissions trading. California has experience and success in these areas, and our China partners are interested in learning from us. At the same time, we know we have a great deal to learn from them."

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Climate change: the great unifier

The China Central Television (CCTV) building is seen next to a construction site in heavy haze in Beijing's central business district. Agencies

(China Daily USA 06/13/2014 page20)