- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 13, 2009

A year ago, the notion that global warming would make the agenda for the U.S. president’s first meeting with his Chinese counterpart in Beijing would have sounded like science fiction.

But it’s a sign of how quickly the international debate on combating climate change has evolved in the past 12 months that President Obama returned from his first visit to China last month with an extensive road map for collaboration between the United States and China on clean-energy and climate initiatives. This is not the first example of cooperation on green issues, but the breadth of the agreement surprised even many insiders.

Together, the United States and China account for about two-fifths of global carbon emissions. Moreover, both countries struggle with similar challenges in reining in future emissions: Both are heavily dependent on coal as a primary energy source; they are the No. 1 and No. 2 auto markets in the world; both have vast wind and solar energy potential, but also difficulties in transmitting renewable energy where it is most easily harvested, in vast empty western and interior stretches of the country, to more populated east coasts. In other words, there is ample ground for cooperation on common challenges.

Of course, a signed memorandum of understanding is just that — a piece of paper. What significance it truly holds will depend upon what comes next. Implementation is the hard part.

Most experts say that the areas listed — from increased efficiency to clean coal to electric vehicles — are a decent blueprint for places where joint research and standards development make sense. Those who have worked extensively on previous environmental projects with Chinese counterparts say that much can be learned from past successful and unsuccessful partnerships.

Here are a few do’s and don’ts.

Build trust and long-term relationships.

Good guanxi, or connections, are essential in China, and like fine wines, develop over time. “Experts who parachute into China and give conferences on how we do things in the U.S. … That approach isn’t very effective,” says Barbara Finamore, founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s China program. “People who come to China need to take time to understand China’s own situation and take time to learn how to adapt solutions to it.”

Make ambitious commitments and follow through.

Chinese officials are still stinging from the unhappy demise of FutureGen , a project President George W. Bush announced in 2003 to much trans-Pacific fanfare. The aim was for the U.S. Department of Energy to collaborate with Chinese partners to build the first near zero-emissions power plant. But after pressuring China to sign onto the project, the Energy Department backed out of its funding commitment.

Broken promises not only don’t build the future but also set back relationships.

Skip the politics.

One of the most successful long-term collaborations has been between scientists in Beijing and those at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.

In 2006, for example, China launched a program to improve the energy efficiency of its top 1,000 energy-consuming enterprises, including state-owned enterprises in such sectors as cement, steel and power generation. China’s economic ministry set targets, then turned to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory for assistance in designing aspects of program implementation, including the energy reporting system. So far, most companies seem on track meet their targets. Although the Chinese and American labs are both government-affiliated, at the heart of the partnership is an exchange between scientists and experts.

Don’t be arrogant.

Often the most-hyped projects have been the least successful, arguably because the focus was on the publicity not the reality. One example is the much-vaunted “eco-cities” that famous American and British architectural firms had promised to build in China, earning high-level kudos from the likes of then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

(Corrected paragraph:) But the firms, U.S.-based William McDonough + Partners and Britain-based Arup, drew up blueprints that took little account of on-the-ground reality in China. McDonough added garages to village homes where cars were a luxury while Arup anticipated that farmers would be happy (and somehow vertigo-immune) if their rural fields were augmented by rooftop gardens atop urban sky rises. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these eco-cities were never built.

Find areas where both sides can learn from each other.

In many past partnerships, the relationship was fairly one-way: officials or businesses within the United States sharing expertise with China. But moving forward, it’s important for partners in the United States to recognize — and take full advantage of — what they can learn from China.

Jeremy Schreifels , a senior policy analyst for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency who has worked extensively in China, says: “There’s a lot we can learn from research being done there. The United States may have an edge in technology innovation, but China is able to innovate in terms of bringing technologies together and scaling up in ways that aren’t now being done in the U.S. or Europe.”

Not every collaboration will be the same.

One hugely significant aspect of the blueprint for collaboration announced by Mr. Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao is that it isn’t just limited to government agencies but makes provisions for involving nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the private sector. Already a number of private organizations, such as the Joint U.S.-China Collaboration on Clean Energy, are striving to bring together businesses, NGOs and officials to brainstorm creative solutions. At times, the private sector can move faster than government agencies and with fewer political hurdles.

Christina Larson is a Bernard Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation and a contributing editor at Foreign Policy magazine.

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