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Kevin Mo’s Blog

A Tale of Two Countries: Secretary Chu Spoke on Climate Change at Tsinghua University

Kevin Mo

Posted July 20, 2009 in Curbing Pollution, Greening China, Living Sustainably, Solving Global Warming, U.S. Law and Policy

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Two days before Energy Secretary Steven Chu gave a speech at Tsinghua University, the top Chinese science and engineering school where I taught building science 15 years ago, a U.S. Embassy intern sent an email offering seats to the first 100 repliers. A dozen interns in our Beijing office immediately emailed back, trying to grab a seat. Unfortunately, all but one hit the lottery-the tickets went too fast. I could clearly see how disappointed our interns were. Luckily, they all eventually went to listen to Secretary Chu after the university increased the overflow space.

It was not the first time a high-profile U.S. figure had spoken at Tsinghua University-President Clinton and President Bush both did-but it's the first time two Chinese-American secretaries visited China at the same time; Commerce Secretary Gary Locke was also in Beijing at the time. The Chinese student audience showed unusually high excitement. In addition, Secretary Chu is a long-time foreign member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. His fellow Nobel laureate, Dr. C.N. Yang, now a professor at Tsinghua, attended the speech and sat in the first row.

Secretary Chu started his speech by mentioning his close ties to Tsinghua-both of his parents graduated from Tsinghua and then went to MIT. His presentation focused on climate change and urged that the U.S. and China work together to tackle global warming issues. To conclude his speech, he used Martin Luther King's phrase from more than 40 years ago, "We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today."

During Secretary Chu's visit to China, the U.S. DOE and China's National Energy Administration announced plans to develop a joint research center on clean energy, with an initial pledge of $15 million from both countries. Priority research topics include building energy efficiency, carbon capture and storage (CCS) and clean vehicles.

As a researcher having worked on building energy efficiency in both the U.S. and China for more than 15 years, I feel that the building sector for the first time is receiving overdue respect in climate talks. Although the building sector accounts for almost 40 percent of carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. and 30 percent in China, climate experts appear to be far more interested in such sectors as power generation, industry, transportation, agriculture, etc.

Unlike CCS and clean vehicles, developing innovative technologies is not the most urgent aspect of building energy efficiency. Existing energy efficiency technologies, if fully utilized, can increase building energy efficiency to at least 30 percent in the U.S. and 50 percent in China. In the newly signed U.S.-China Building Efficiency MOU, the two countries will learn from each other's experiences with efficient building technologies.

Building policy incentives and regulatory reform are equally important to the both countries. While the American Clean Energy and Security Act is pushing for a national building code, China has already had in place national building standards and green building standards, with help from NRDC and other U.S. organizations. In addition, China also requires that government-owned buildings and large public buildings install real-time energy monitoring systems; it would probably be an uphill climb for the U.S. to require this. However, in China, building code enforcement is still a big concern, and a market-based incentive mechanism is also missing. NRDC and RESNET are helping China to develop a building-labeling system that enforces building codes, and to foster a market-based energy inspector community.

China is enthusiastic about eco-city initiatives, which the U.S. government will support, according to the MOU. But it still will take time before China achieves net-zero energy building, an ambitious goal for the DOE that targets the year 2020 for residential buildings and 2025 for commercial buildings. China still faces regulatory obstacles to get solar energy connected to the grid. By the end of 2008, only 100 mW solar power capacity was attached to the grid. By the DOE's definition, a net-zero energy building should be able to send extra electricity to the grid and get electricity from the grid when on-site generation is insufficient.

 

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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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