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Obama’s First Trip to China: What to Expect on Global Warming

Jake Schmidt

Posted November 16, 2009 in Greening China, Solving Global Warming

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President Obama is on a swing through Asia and is now in China for high-level meetings on a range of issues.  At the top of his agenda with China is how these two key players can individually and jointly move forward on efforts to address global warming.  This is especially important as Copenhagen is just 3 weeks away and the U.S. Senate is immersed in efforts to finalize a clean energy and global warming bill in the first part of next year.  China and the US are critical players in both debates.

This is his first trip to China and it couldn't come at a more critical time in the world's efforts to address global warming pollution.  After all these two countries account for 40% of the world's global warming pollution from fossil fuel combustion.  So as we said before these two countries jointly hold the key to either sustainability or catastrophe.

Later in the week President Obama will meet with President Hu Jintao to discuss global warming.  This is where we expect further details will be announced on a number of further steps that the two countries will undertake on global warming and clean energy.  These new agreements will likely "add flesh" to the agreements reached in July (as my colleague Barbara Finamore discussed here). 

Before Obama heads to Beijing to meet with President Hu and Premier Wen, he made a stop in Shanghai where he conducted a "town hall" style event with Chinese youth.  Here is what he said in response to a question on: "what are you bringing to China, your visit to China this time, and what will you bring back to the United States?"

"...the discussions that I intend to have with President Hu speak to the point that Ambassador Huntsman made earlier, which is there are very few global challenges that can be solved unless the United States and China agree.

So let me give you a specific example, and that is the issue we were just discussing of climate change.  The United States and China are the world's two largest emitters of greenhouse gases, of carbon that is causing the planet to warm.  Now, the United States, as a highly developed country, as I said before, per capita, consumes much more energy and emits much more greenhouse gases for each individual than does China.  On the other hand, China is growing at a much faster pace and it has a much larger population.  So unless both of our countries are willing to take critical steps in dealing with this issue, we will not be able to resolve it.

There's going to be a Copenhagen conference in December in which world leaders are trying to find a recipe so that we can all make commitments that are differentiated so each country would not have the same obligations -- obviously China, which has much more poverty, should not have to do exactly the same thing as the United States -- but all of us should have these certain obligations in terms of what our plan will be to reduce these greenhouse gases.

So that's an example of what I hope to get out of this meeting -- a meeting of the minds between myself and President Hu about how together the United States and China can show leadership.  Because I will tell you, other countries around the world will be waiting for us.  They will watch to see what we do. And if they say, ah, you know, the United States and China, they're not serious about this, then they won't be serious either.  That is the burden of leadership that both of our countries now carry.  And my hope is, is that the more discussion and dialogue that we have, the more we are able to show this leadership to the world on these many critical issues."

Clearly this reiterates that engagement with China on global warming is one of the top issues between the two countries.  There are many things he could have used as an example, but the fact that global warming was used shows how important that issue is to the current Sino-American relationship.  That is how they can show leadership...by finding solutions to this critical challenge.  We couldn't agree more!

We don't expect final agreement between the two countries on all the key actions that they'll undertake to curb their global warming pollution on this trip (such as the exact greenhouse gas intensity target that China would commit to as announced by President Hu in September as I discussed here).  But we do hope that they'll reach agreement on a couple of key issues (as our President Frances Beinecke recently discussed and some that my colleague Barbara Finamore has highlighted).  These could include agreements on energy efficiency, renewable energy, electric vehicles, carbon capture and storage, and monitoring and reporting of emissions.  Stay tuned on that front as the NRDC team will have more to say as details emerge later in the week. 

While not likely to produce the big headlines that an agreement on China's greenhouse gas intensity target would generate, these key action-oriented steps will both help make a serious down payment in curbing global warming pollution and give a needed boost to efforts to finalize an international agreement.

Also important to this trip is how these two key players build stronger relationships on global warming.  After all, we'll need these two countries to work together over a long period of time to address global warming.  So it is best if that collaboration is built on a solid foundation.  Obama struck the right tone on that front in Shanghai and hopefully President Hu and Obama will build on that in Beijing.

So Obama's first trip to China is off to a good start.  Let's hope that the next day produces even more tangible steps that the two countries can undertake to address global warming pollution.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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