US, China look to energy for common ground amid friction

Energy is a rare bright spot amid otherwise tense relations between the US and China ahead of an annual summit between the two superpowers this week. US officials say climate change and clean energy offer room for collaboration with their Chinese counterparts.

Jim Bourg/AP/Pool
Secretary of State John Kerry, third right,Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, second right, and Ambassador to China Max Baucus, second left, tour the Badaling section of the Great Wall of China Tuesday.

With tension high between the US and China over cybersecurity, spying, and maritime disputes, energy and climate issues may be fertile ground for collaboration during the countries’ annual bilateral talks this week.

The world’s two largest carbon emitters have increasingly pooled efforts on energy and the environment, aiming to bolster ties and lead an international push to mitigate climate change. Booming US oil and gas production has made that easier by lessening competition with China for global resources.

China and the US don’t see eye-to-eye on everything in energy. The two powerhouses are currently in talks to settle a trade dispute over solar panels, and a recent natural gas megadeal between Russia and China has unnerved Western leaders.  

But those are small issues compared to the widening rifts between the US and China over cyberespionage and disputes in the South China Sea. Against that backdrop, climate and energy seem ripe for a meeting of the minds.  

“There are a lot of contentious issues,” said Jane Nakano, a fellow in the Energy and National Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank. “The two sides may try to highlight how climate and clean energy are an area for cooperation.”

Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew will convene with Chinese counterparts Vice Premier Wang Yang and State Councilor Yang Jiechi in Beijing Wednesday and Thursday for the sixth annual US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a briefing Monday that the State Department expects “high-level discussions on climate change and clean energy.”

"[T]here is a tremendous overlap of interests between the US and China on the range of issues relating to climate change, to environmental protection, and to clean energy,” a senior US administration official said in a background briefing Monday. “This is a classic example of an area of a global challenge for which US-China cooperation is an essential ingredient of any long-term solution,"

Last year, the two countries established a working group to address climate change, committing “to devote significant effort and resources to secure concrete results” by this year’s summit, according to a joint US-China statement on climate change released by the State Department in February.

Conversations at this week’s US-China talks could help flesh out each party’s climate commitments prior to the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, said Elliot Diringer, executive vice president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, a climate policy nonprofit based in Arlington, Va. The multilateral Paris summit will aim to establish an agreement curbing carbon emissions worldwide.

“The success of Paris hinges heavily on how ambitious the numbers are,” Mr. Diringer said in a telephone interview Tuesday. China and the US have agreed to release carbon reduction commitment numbers early to ensure scrutiny before the Paris summit, he added.

In Monday’s State Department briefing, Ms. Psaki added that this week’s bilateral talks in Beijing would include the discussion of further cooperation under the US-China Climate Change Working Group and the US-China EcoPartnerships.

“The fact that the US and China are working closely in developing and sharing information about their respective contributions is encouraging,” Diringer said.

Although cybersecurity and maritime disputes are straining the US-China relationship, Ms. Nakano said the air between the countries has improved in other respects. As US domestic energy production has swelled over the last 10 years, Nakano said that climate and energy issues between the countries are less fraught. Previously, the geopolitics of oil and gas development would have made energy and climate a more sensitive issue.

“Now, with the US becoming increasingly self-sufficient, that rivalry and geopolitical competition over natural resources has been muted significantly,” Nakano said.

Still, it is unclear what – if any – tangible outcomes could result from the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue this week.

Last year the US and China reached an agreement on phasing out hydrofluorocarbons, a particularly carbon-heavy refrigerant. The countries planned to transition away from the greenhouse gas through the 1987 Montreal Protocol.

“That has not yet borne fruit,” Diringer said. Still, he noted, the bilateral agreement “was considered a significant step forward.”

Energy and environmental cooperation offers a chance for sustained dialogue. “It’s an area of mutual interest, but also one of confidence-building,” Nakano said.

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