Two Reports Highlight U.S.-China Climate Issues

One, â''Common Challenge, Collaborative Response,â'' comes from The Asia Societyâ''s Center on U.S.-China Relations and the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. Itâ''s noteworthy above all because it comes from a task force chaired by Nobelist Steven Chu, the new energy secretary, and John L. Thornton, an Asia expert and former co-COO of Goldman Sachs. The other, a little confusingly, comes courtesy of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution. Written primarily by two men youâ''ve probably never heard of, David B. Sandalow and Kenneth G. Lieberthal, it actually has some interesting things to say.

Ten years ago, in the November and December 1999 issues of IEEE Spectrum magazine, we drew attention to the critical importance of coal combustion in China and India, and discussed the implications for climate and clean energy technologies. If advanced industrial countries like the United States â''want to mitigate the risks of climate change, after cleaning up for themselves and getting their owns houses in order,â'' we said at that time, â''the next best thing they can do is help China and India do the same.â''

Since then, Chinaâ''s greenhouse gas emissions, mainly from coal combustion, have come to equal or surpass those of the United States. On a per capital basis, however, the Chinese peopleâ''s emissions remain a tiny fraction of Americansâ''. Hence the enduring difficulty of finding common constructive ground, the focus to todayâ''s two reports.

The Chu-Thornton report calls on the leaders of the two countries to convene a climate summit. Specifically, it says the two countries need to find ways of continuing to make electricity from coal, by developing clean coal technologies; collaborate to enhance energy efficiency and deploy renewable energy technologies; and find â''innovative finance mechanisms,â'' so that the private sectors can be better engaged. Those conclusions will strike many as less than compelling. Zero-carbon coal technologies are still far from commercialization, and to the extent they are being actively developed today, the Scandinavians, not potential partners in the United States, are leading the way. In the meantime, emissions from coal can be cut only by burning less coal, and that can occur only if non-renewable as well as renewable energy sources are drawn uponâ''specifically, more natural gas and more nuclear power. Improving efficiency is a good thing but runs up against the efficiency paradox: the more efficient and the more inexpensive energy is, the more people use. So mandated conservation measures also will be required. As for financial innovations . . . the less said, these days, the better.

The Sandalow-Lieberthal report, at least to judge from the executive summaries, is more substantive. It suggests, for example, efforts to electrify vehicle fleets and improve the energy efficiency of buildings, and creation of a joint Clean Energy Corpsâ''a kind of mutual Peace Corps. It says the two countries should initiate at least one major technology co-development project. Identifying an area of genuine U.S. technical strength, it says that the United States can help China in â''large-scale database management, and instrumentation that can contribute significantly to Beijingâ''s capacities to monitor and evaluate energy policy outcomes.â''

Like Chu-Thornton, Sandalow-Lieberthal say there should be a U.S.-China summit as soon as possible, and that cooperation on climate change and clean energy should be a key topic. As it happens, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced today that she will soon travel to China, and that climate will be high on her agenda.

Now weâ''re really talking.

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