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On January 13th of this year, President Trump abruptly ordered the termination of the U.S.-China EcoPartnership Program. Seven days before leaving office and without notice, Trump turned the lights off on this 10-year old program, pulling the rug out from under 36 committed and on-going bi-national projects to lower carbon-emissions at global scale.

The Biden Administration is assessing its options for re-vitalizing, in some shape or form, this model of innovative and impactful public-private collaboration to put a dent in global greenhouse gas emissions. This might involve replication of the program to India. ReGen250 is already in the starting gate with a U.S. Mid-Atlantic/State of Maharashtra candidate program should that take shape, as is described on pages 8-9 of our article published last month in the peer-reviewed science journal Environmental Progress and Sustainable Energy.

In the meanwhile, we are pressing forward with unofficial support from the two U.S. Government agencies which ran the EcoPartnership program for ten years — the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Energy — on a purely private and sub-national basis. Our goal in China looking forward is to explore the possibility of expanding from a regional effort (low-carbon collaboration between the U.S.-Mid-Atlantic and the Jing-Jin-Ji (京津冀) region of Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei Province to national scale.

How will we accomplish this without the direct support of the U.S. Government? The first step was to confirm the Biden Administration’s encouragement of trade with China in support of Paris Accord goals and then to renew our region-to-region BE Better program partnership with our primary partner in China, the TEDA EcoCenter. These steps were taken last quarter.

The next steps involve exploring prospects for the resumption of the Sino-U.S. Eco Park national-level opportunity with the Green Development League as outlined at the 2020 U.S.-China EcoPartnership Summit. (As described in detail in a prior post, the Green Development League comprises the 36 top-ranked NETDZs throughout China and the GDL Secretary-General is our original EcoPartnership partner (the TEDA EcoCenter and its Director Madame Yuyan Song).

As the exclusive U.S.-based working group member for the proposed Sino-U.S. Eco Park, China Partnership would leverage expertise and input from (1) our region-to-region BE Better program partners (experts in “energy-efficient, smart and healthy built environments” for industrial park users) as well as (2) our U.S.-China BEST Cities partners (with additional constituencies of support to include the U.S.-China Business Council, the U.S. Industry Advisory Board of the U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center for Building Energy Efficiency (CERC-BEE), the National Governors Association, and the National League of Cities) in order to identify a comprehensive range of U.S. clean energy technologies and infrastructures from across eastern, central and western regions of the United States to be incorporated into the Sino-U.S. BE Better Eco Park model.

The primary impact of this milestone — CPGP’s formally joining the Green Development League’s  working group for design of a Sino-U.S. Eco Park with scalability and replicability to multiple locations throughout China — is literally “to put the U.S. on the map” alongside eight other similar International Eco Parks already functioning in China under PRC Ministry of Commerce auspices. These eight other Eco Park projects represent mostly Sino-European collaborations (e.g., Sino-German Eco Park, Sino-Swiss Zhenjiang Eco Park, Sino-Austrian Eco Park, Sino-Finland Beijing Eco Park) and, to date, none represents a Sino-U.S. collaboration. The CPGP/U.S.-China BEST Cities model was selected, following the March 27, 2018 deadline for application, due to its unique structure of open collaboration designed to introduce U.S. urban clean energy infrastructures and technologies to TEDA and the 35 other top National Economic-technological Development Zones (NETDZ) in the Green Development League.

Using comparables drawn from the realized, real-world experience of the Sino-German Eco Park in Dalian but adjusted to account for the relatively greater GDP of the U.S., a Sino-U.S. BE Better Eco Park leveraging our EcoPartnership’s platform of energy-efficient, smart, healthy built environment and clean manufacturing for industrial park application should reasonably be expected to realize within its initial 5 years:

• As many as 300 signed project agreements (with nearly 60% of those either in production or under construction during that timeframe) representing total investment of 100 billion RMB (approx. USD 15 billion at today’s exchange rate)

• As many as 90 of these projects would be expected to fall in the high-end manufacturing and new energy field with total investment of 67.5 billion RMB (approx. USD 10 billion at today’s exchange rate)

• As many as 80 of these projects would be expected to fall in the advanced services sector with total investment of 35 billion RMB (approx. USD 5 billion at today’s exchange rate)

We are now actively exploring the most practical route for realizing this goal which would involve resumption, post-Trump Administration, of our primary partnership model with (a) TEDA, (b) the 36 GDLs and (c) the 219 NETDZs. Additionally, we have recourse to a secondary partnership model focused on the Jing-Jin-Ji/Xiongan New Area mega-development project. 

With respect to the 35-year macroeconomic development effort ushered in by Deng Xiaoping and the Shenzhen and Pudong macro-development projects, Xiongan has both continuities and distinctive differences. One similarity is the size envisioned for the Xiongan New Area -– roughly 50% bigger than Pudong (east of Shanghai) and slightly larger than Shenzhen (to the north of Hong Kong). While Xiongan can be thought of as culminating the coastal progression of these macro-projects–- starting in the south with Shenzhen in the 1980s and moving to the central coast with Pudong in the 1990s -– the final, northern leg of this triad was wobbly at first. President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao initially envisioned the third macro-project leg as being Binhai to the northeast of Tianjin. Post-2012, however, plans for Binhai lost most of their momentum and it was only with President Xi Jinping’s emergence in power that priority was shifted from Binhai to Xiongan. It is more in the discontinuities between Xiongan and the earlier Shenzhen and Pudong macro-projects that Xiongan’s significance can best be understood. The first 30 years of the PRC’s post-Cultural Revolution industrial development was based on a high-carbon model. (This is frequently referred to in China by the phrase 先污染后治理 meaning “pollute first, clean up (or remediate) later”). In contrast, the Xiongan industrial model championed by Xi Jinping focuses on a different set of values for the next 30-year-or-so phase of China’s development in the 21st century: the goals of (1) promoting and putting into practice low-carbon industrialization and sustainability innovations and (2) lessening social inequality and narrowing the gap between rich and poor in shared benefits of industrialization and economic development.

Among the few dozen officially-awarded U.S.-China EcoPartnerships, the PHL-TEDA EcoPartnership is unique in its design as an open platform to facilitate collaboration among businesses, local governments, universities and non-governmental organizations (NGO). On the U.S. side, the platform is anchored by China Partnership of Greater Philadelphia (CPGP, a 501c3 non- profit) and its public sector partner, the Commerce Department of the City of Philadelphia. The first stage of this collaboration has involved bringing sustainable-city-type BE Better technologies (built environment technologies that are more energy-effiient, smarter and healthier) to our EcoPartnership partner in Tianjin (TEDA). Our longer-term objective is to scale these BE Better technologies throughout China through the network of its national-level industrial parks. The initial stage of this scaling effort focuses on China’s northeastern Jing-Jin-Ji region (comprising Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei Province) through collaborations with Green Development League-member National Economic-Technological Development Zones (NETDZ) in Beijing, Tianjin and Langfang. The longer-term goal is to position for second-stage, nation-wide expansion of the BE Better model through the Green Development League’s 36 member- NETDZs nationwide and through the Ministry of Commerce’s national Eco Park program.

On January 13, 2021 — a scant week short of President-elect Biden’s inauguration — President Trump turned off the lights on this decade-old government-to-government program between the U.S. and China to advance climate change mitigation efforts in both countries. Nonetheless, the PHL-TEDA effort was always conceived as a private-sector driven effort and — with continuing legacy support from the U.S. Departments of Energy and State — we are advancing our BE Better program with our TEDA partner in China and exploring possible broadening of the program to the state of Maharashtra in India.

The complete story of where we have been and where we are going is presented in the attached peer-reviewed article published online earlier this month by the Wiley-owned journal Environmental Progress & Sustainable Energy. The print version of the article will be published in the next few weeks.

The full article can be read by clicking here or on the image below:

We encountered headwinds along the way — a fraudulent bid procurement, Trump’s announced intent to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Accord, the Tariff War — but, by tacking and keeping our eye fixed on our destination, we have gotten to calmer waters and now have a following wind. Stay tuned for the next leg of the journey.

China Partnership of Greater Philadelphia (CPGP) has been truckin’ along the main street of U.S.-China clean energy cooperation since 2011. As seen through our eyes, it sure has been a trip. Here’s a brief history of the long, strange journey …

Timed well to the moment we’re in right now, the peer-reviewed science journal Environmental Progress & Sustainable Energy has published this month an overview article recapping CPGP’s 10-year journey and peering forward at the road ahead. You can read the article here and feel free to comment below.

Sometimes the light’s all shinin’ on me
Other times, I can barely see
Lately, it occurs to me
What a long, strange trip it’s been…

President Biden’s first in-person appearance on the world stage included a tense but business-like meeting with Vladimir Putin, a NATO meeting in which NATO solidarity was vociferously reaffirmed and a meeting of G7 leaders in which the perceived threats of climate change and China both loomed large.

The final agreement announced at the conclusion of the G7 last Sunday featured two elements with direct bearing on China and, particularly, on China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI): a commitment to phase out coal-fired electricity generation and a revived commitment to provide $100 billion in green finance assistance to developing countries.  Both commitments were, however, long on symbolism and short on substance.

Today’s post looks at why the headlines for both announcements were printed in such large banner font, why the accompanying stories were so short in column-inch detail and why both stories serve to center on China at a meeting – involving the heads of state of the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Germany, France, Italy and Japan – where China is not represented.

The electricity generation commitment undertaken by the seven leaders was specifically that their governments would provide no new support for thermal coal power generation except in cases where carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology is deployed in tandem to neutralize the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions produced by coal-firing.  This undertaking supports a previous G7 commitment to halve emissions by 2030 (against a 2010 baseline) on the way to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

The green finance commitment announced announced Sunday – to provide $100 billion annually to help developing countries decarbonize – was not in fact a new commitment but a reaffirmation of an earlier commitment which had lapsed during the Trump years. It was rolled out on Sunday with a new name – the Build Back Better World Initiative – but with no new funding attached.

Seen from a global perspective, both commitments are intended as a direct response to China and its Belt and Road Initiative.  China’s trajectory of domestic high-growth has resulted in it recently surpassing the GHG emissions of the entire developed world combined, according to a recent report by the Rhodium Group.  Compounding this unfavorable trend, China continues to support its Big Coal industry by encouraging exports of coal-fired power generation equipment to its less developed BRI partner countries.  The G7’s electricity generation commitment is therefore intended to draw a sharp contrast in climate change global leadership between the G7 group of democracies and the China’s competing, more authoritarian model.  Similarly, the green financing commitment is intended as an alternative pool of financing for developing countries to draw on separate from Chinese government lending and the BRI-focused Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

So what accounts for the splashy headline but dearth of detail?  Two factors. The first is the very evident desire of the other six countries to welcome the U.S., post-Trump, “back into the club” by explicitly amplifying in the international arena President Biden’s domestic Build Back Better theme; and, more importantly, by presenting a show of implicit support for Biden’s “Summit of the Democracies” strategy for countering China. In short, the symbolism was more important than the actual substance for achieving this goal.

Hammering out the details of the power generation agreement and expanding on the scope of the green finance commitment eluded the G7 leaders at this meeting due to a lack of confidence, especially among the three leaders from Continental Europe, that detailed and expanded agreement will stick. There are three levels of doubt contributing to this lack of confidence.  In order of ascending importance, there is:

  • Uncertainty over how Biden and his National Security Council deputies Kurt Campbell and John Kerry are going to square heightened competition with China in the technology space with attempted renewal of cooperation with China in addressing climate change;
  • Doubt over the ability of the Administration to get its proposals through a closely-divided and highly-partisan Congress; and
  • Concern that the American public’s fling with climate science denial and Trumpian America First thinking might not be a one-time affair and could come to the fore again in the 2022 mid-term election and the 2024 Presidential election.

Given these doubts, any effort to provide substantive detail for the power generation agreement and to expand the green financing agreement would have been prone to failure and could have undercut the paramount goal of projecting renewed G7 solidarity and democratic unity.  Looked at from another angle, this result shows how much effort and hard work will be required to reestablish the global momentum toward 2050 climate goals following Trump’s decision to pull America out from the Paris Accord Conference of Parties (COP) process.

On May 27th speaking at the annual Stanford University Oksenberg Conference, Kurt Campbell, Biden’s National Security Council Coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs, delineated the new ‘continental divide’ in U.S.-China Relations.

The period in U.S. policy toward China that was broadly described as ‘engagement’ has come to an end, said Dr. Kurt M. Campbell, deputy assistant to the President and coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs at the National Security Council, speaking at Shorenstein APARC’s 2021 Oksenberg Conference. “The dominant paradigm is going to be competition. Our goal is to make that a stable, peaceful competition that brings out the best of us,” he added.

This low-key pronouncement is attention-grabbing for several fundamental reasons: (1) it marks the end of a 39-year bipartisan effort to encourage China to become, through a concerted program of cooperative outreach, a “responsible stakeholder” in the post-WWII liberal democratic world order and (2) the epitapth was delivered by one of the principal architects of that cooperative program.

To back up this somewhat sweeping statement on my part, I’ll be spending the weeks ahead examining what this sea-change portends from three perspectives:

Aspirationally …

On Mondays, we’ll be looking at various aspects of what heightened competition with China will look like for the Biden Administration in the tech sphere. This will include high-level perspectives of competition in artificial intelligence and robotics; sourcing of rare earths needed for smart phones, electric vehicles and other high-tech products; 5G build-out in domestic and international markets; quantum computing competition; the Great Firewall of China as an export product to Belt & Road partners countries; and social media platforms and data privacy issues. But most saliently, we’ll be looking in-depth at global supply chains in microelectronics and the fraught issue that 40% of the world’s microchip production — and 80% of its high-performance products — are produced in Taiwan at a distance of only 90 miles from the PRC mainland.

On Wednesdays, we’ll be examining the fields of energy and environment where cooperation still rules the day under Cabinet-level John Kerry’s aegis but where cooperation is shifting from a government-to-government level to a more market-based model of comparative advantage cooperation.

On Fridays, we’ll be examining what these changes look like from the Chinese perspective. Our sources for this perspective — what cultural anthropologists call the emic (in-group) view as opposed to the etic (outside observer) view — will include macro-perspectives such as the Five Year Plans, primary-source research findings provided by my UPenn masters-level students, and also micro-perspectives such as interviews and insights gleaned from business people operating on the ground in China.

My heart-felt thanks go out to the many subscribers who have been with me on the journey to date. I look forward to welcoming hopefully many others choosing to subscribe to the blog for this next leg of the journey.

The COVID-19 pandemic holds lots of lessons for addressing the climate change challenge.  I’ll tackle the knottiest set of lessons — those concerning differing global responses, U.S. partisan cleavages, the psychology of risk and individual choice, and the ethics — in an upcoming post.

For now, I will simply set out a list of ten major impacts which the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the climate change mitigation effort.  Four negative, four positive, and two ‘the jury is out.’

FOUR NEGATIVE IMPACTS

 

POACHING, LOGGING & PROTECTED AREAS LOSS

The impacts of COVID-19 — reducing mobility, leading to job cuts, and diverting world attention — have made the work of guarding against poaching, illegal logging and other threats to protected areas much more difficult to accomplish. Endangered specie and protected areas are suffering as a direct consequence.  Possibly, enhanced satellite surveillance and monitoring may be put to greater use in the future to help deal with this problem.

 

SUSTAINABLE TOURISM

The Travel & Leisure Industry has been perhaps the single most hard-hit industry sector as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.  As a new start-up, the Sustainable Tourism sub-sector has felt this impact particularly hard.  Many Sustainable Tourism operations are in underdeveloped or developing countries and run by local cooperatives which don’t have access to capital resources to sustain them.

 

CIRCULAR ECONOMY & WASTE MANAGEMENT

Circular economy refers to design solutions that repurpose waste from every point in a system so that is can be reused, optimizing the system from an efficiency and sustainability standpoint. Factories and entire cities are working to implement circular economies.  The logistics of waste management is a key link.  As you’ll know post-COVID if you’ve tried to recycle plastic bags at your market, that link in the cycle is currently broken.

 

ENVIRONMENTAL ACTION MOBILIZATION

Humans are hard-wired for connectivity and, while online methods of mobilization allow for greater efficiency and scale, they lack the impact of people gathering together … both from the standpoint of the participants and the observers of the activity.  Countless environmental action events have now been cancelled due to COVID-19.  Even the COP26 meeting to review progress on the Paris Accord has been postponed a year.

 

 

FOUR POSITIVE IMPACTS

 

REGENERATIVE URBAN GARDENS

Along with baking and at-home yoga, urban gardening is one of the activities which has seen a huge spike since COVID-19 forced us to stay closer to home.  This is a hugely positive development since urban gardens have shown — through programs such as the Philadelphia Horticultural Societies Growers Alliance — that they transform neighborhoods. Food deserts become locales with healthy food while improving the quality of the air.

 

15 MINUTE CITY CONCEPT

As  Financial Times and Treehugger have described, the 15-Minute City concept is “having a moment” thanks to COVID-19.  Developed by Professor Carlos Moreno at the Sorbonne in Paris and based on the Lazaretto model developed in Milan during a 16th c. plague, the 15 Minute City plan is to “offer services and quality of life within the space of 15 minutes on foot from home,” the same time a commuter might have waited on the platform for a train.

 

MORE INCLUSIVE LOCAL CLIMATE ACTION PLANS

Among the many things which the COVID-19 pandemic has made painfully obvious is that fact that certain disadvantaged and at-risk communities take a disproportionately heavy hit.  One bright side from this realization is that Sustainability Offices throughout the country are dusting off their city’s Climate Action Plan and reimagining them with a more inclusive vision.  I don’t know if this effort is yet underway in Philadelphia but it should be.

 

IMPACT ON SOCIAL IMPACT INVESTING

COVID-19 initially had a disruptive effect on social impact investing, but that disruption has been overcome.  Perhaps because the pandemic has highlighted vulnerabilities in our maximally-efficient economy (and maximally-stressed work-lives) ideas and innovations for more balance and resiliency in work- and life-styles are popping up.  Social impact investing is watering the growth of those new ideas.

 

TWO ‘THE JURY IS STILL OUT’ IMPACTS

 

AIR QUALITY

The shutdown of economic activity and drastic reduction in the use of fossil fuels has of course led to a short-term amelioration in air quality, as the twin maps of China clearly shows.  But the jury is out on the critical question of what will happen as activity resumes.  Will economic pressure cause backsliding to abundant and cheap carbon fuels or will the Resiliency Lesson from our experience from the pandemic be learned?  We know that areas with worse air quality suffered more from the virus.

 

INFLECTION POINT – YES OR NO?

We can enlarge the air quality question to the environment as a whole.  Our efforts now to revive economic activity can either be rote or be reimagined.  There are lessons which the pandemic has taught us about our interdependence and about what is most important in our lives.  Will we apply what we have learned to recharging our economy in ways that are more resilient and regenerative or will be fall back on old habits? The answer will reverberate across coming generations.

 

These last two impacts are complex, still-evolving and extremely important.  I will return to each in a future post.

For now, stay safe, healthy and involved.

 

 

The global scientific consensus, most prominently supported by the work of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), assesses with high confidence a global warming increase of 1 °C as measured against preindustrial levels. Currently experienced effects from the 1 °C global warming which has already occurred include: loss of sea ice and glacial shrinking, accelerated sea level rises, shifting atmospheric and oceanic currents, longer and more intense heat waves and hurricane seasons. Impacts on the biosphere include the shifting of plant and animal ranges, earlier plant and tree flowering, and rapid declines in bio- diversity. All of these changes threaten the equilibrium of the planet and, more fundamentally, the continued viability of human adaptation to the planet.

The most recent comprehensive report issued by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2018 compares the difference in impacts on human societies (the ‘delta’) if global warming is allowed to reach 2 °C as opposed to being stabilized at 1.5 °C above preindustrial levels. These delta effects2 include: an additional 10 million people endangered by sea level rise; several hundred million more people made susceptible to poverty; 50% more people exposed to water stress; loss of 1.5 million additional tons of global annual catch for marine fisheries; the number of plant and animal species on which human life depends losing half their habitat.

Clearly, the challenge is epochal. Even assuming that all countries in the world fulfill their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) pledged in the Paris Agreement, the world is currently on track to exceed 1.5° C by 2050 and to remain well above that threshold into the next century.

At a national level, the challenge is no less urgent or less central to societal well-being. Even for an administration notably skeptical of climate change science and aggressively committed to deregulating and redefining environmental standards so as to lessen the severity of threat assessments, the outlook remains dire. According to the Trump Administration’s most recent Climate Assessment3, which synthesizes the data and projections from thirteen federal agencies, key risks facing the nation as a direct result of climate change include risks to communities, the economy, water quality, citizen health, ecosystems, agricultural and food supply; the nation’s infrastructure; and the nation’s defense. To quote directly several specific examples:

  • “Climate change creates new risks and exacerbates existing vulnerabilities in communities across the United States, presenting growing challenges to human health and safety, quality of life, and the rate of economic growth;”
  • “Without substantial and sustained global mitigation and regional adaptation efforts, climate change is expected to cause growing losses to American infrastructure and property and impede the rate of economic growth over this century;”
  • “The quality and quantity of water available for use by people and ecosystems across the country are being affected by climate change, increasing risks and costs to agriculture, energy production, industry, recreation and the environment;”
  • “Impacts from climate change on extreme weather and climate-related events, air quality, and the transmission of disease through insects and pests, food and water increasingly threaten the health and well-being of the American people, particularly populations that are already vulnerable;”
  • “Ecosystems and the benefits they provide to society are being altered by climate change and these impacts are projected to continue. Without substantial and sustained reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions, transformative impacts on some ecosystems will occur; some coral reef and sea ice ecosystems are already experiencing such transformational changes;”
  • “Rising temperatures, extreme heat, drought, wildfire on rangelands, and heavy downpours are expected to increasingly disrupt agricultural productivity in the United States. Expected increases in challenges to livestock health, declines in crop yields and quality, and changes in extreme events in the United States and abroad threaten rural livelihoods, sustainable food security, and price stability;”
  • “Our Nation’s aging and deteriorating infrastructure is further stressed by increases in heavy precipitation events, coastal flooding, heat, wildfire, and other extreme events, as well as changes to average precipitation and temperature. Without adaptation, climate change will continue to degrade infrastructure performance over the rest of the century, with the potential for cascading impacts that threaten our economy, national security, essential services and health and well-being.”These effects are felt most directly at the local level. This is because the costs which climate change inflicts globally and nationally – costs of community disruption, slowing economic growth, deteriorating water quality, ecosystem disequilibrium, and infrastructural decay – are mostly borne at the local level. To address this challenge, the City of Philadelphia, like most major cities in the country and many counties and townships as well, has its own Climate Action Plan. Generally, these local plans have three major components: (1) at the grassroots level, the plan serves to connect with various stakeholder groups such as businesses, educational institutions, residential associations, and engaged constituencies to raise awareness and help coordinate common effort; (2) at the local governmental level, the plan articulates the limited number of focal areas where local government has determined its scarce dollars canhave greatest, proactive impact; and (3) at the supra-local governmental level, these plans serve as the blueprints for collaboration with other cities and regions, as the justification for federal budget requests, and as the channel for consolidating and reporting local ‘carbon emissions savings’ into the Paris Agreement NDC process.

As we have learned with the COVID-19 pandemic, a straightforward scientific fact can be politically complicated.  Acknowledging and addressing human-caused climate change is politically complex in the U.S. at this moment.  So is cooperating with China on anything.  Recognizing those complexities does not, however, absolve us of the responsibility to find a way forward on both the science and the international relations.

1.5° is where the U.S. and China must meet.

“Nearly two-thirds of Americans believe the federal government should act more aggressively to combat climate change, and almost as many say the problem is already affecting their community in some way” according to a Pew Research Center survey released on June 23rd this year.

While Democrats and Republicans diverge sharply over the question of whether human activity is contributing “a great deal” (72% Democrats vs 22% Republicans) or only “some” (22% Democrat vs 43% Republicans) to climate change, strong majorities of both parties recognize the human contribution and want the government to do more about it.

The story of this post goes back some twelve years. It’s a story of how bipartisanship and cooperative outreach can lead change. It shows what can be achieved when we focus, with a grounding in science, on the common good.  We’re not doing that successfully now with COVID-19.  We’re not doing it successfully now with climate change either  But it’s within reach to do better.

As the second term of the George W. Bush Administration was winding down, Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson sensed drift in the U.S.-China relationship. An avid birder and a passionate outdoorsman, Paulson found himself drawn to the environment as a possible new basis for cooperative engagement with China.  If sufficient trust could be generated between the U.S. and China – especially among the career administrators responsible for climate policy in both countries – the quarter-century logjam that had impeded global action on climate change might free up.

What was that logjam?  Ever since the mid-1970s, when the United Nations had first identified climate change as a long-term economic and political threat to the community of nations, the United States and China had never seen the issue eye-to-eye.  The U.S., acting as the de facto leader of the developed nations, wanted joint action with the developing nations but didn’t want the developed nations to be forced to shoulder most costs.  China, as de facto leader of the developing nations, wanted joint action but insisted the developing nations should foot most of the bill.  Their argument, somewhat disingenuous but appealing in its simplicity, used a restaurant tab as an analogy.  Why should developing nations, who had come late to the industrial revolution party, be splitting the bill for all the courses when they had only participated in the post-WWII dessert course?  (The ploy buried in this argument is, of course, that the rates of consumption and carbon output of the post-WWII phase of industrial development outstripped significantly the previous century on a cumulative basis and the developing nations were on course to grow their consumption and carbon output in coming decades while developing nations were moderating theirs).  In any case, this divergence of approach led directly to the breakdown of the Kyoto Protocol in 1999 (and also to the less consequential but unseemly debacle between President Obama and the Chinese delegation at the COP20 (20th UN Conference of Parties) meeting in Copenhagen in 2009).

So against this background, Secretary Paulson traveled to Beijing for discussions with his Chinese government counterparts about a new framework for coordination on global economic issues, resolution of trade disputes and strategic cooperation to mitigate climate change. While on that trip, Paulson traveled with his China-hand Deputy Chief of Staff, Taiya Smith, to Lake Qinghai to see first-hand the condition of that world-heritage lake and its wetland bird habitat.  At the water’s edge, Paulson picked up some beverage cans and plastic bottles discarded there by fishermen and tourists. The Chinese officials traveling with him were surprised and impressed to see a Cabinet-level U.S. official stoop, literally, to help clear a Chinese lake of trash.  In that moment, a ten-year run of strategic cooperation on clean energy and the environment between the U.S. and China was launched.

Over the past two academic years, I taught a masters level course for the University of Pennsylvania’s International Masters of Public Administration with the official Ten Year Framework (TYF) for U.S.-China Cooperation on Energy and Environment as the focal case-study.  I could say a lot about it but, for the purpose of this post, I have only a single point to make.

The TYF is a case-study in the hard work of cooperation.  Launched in late 2008 by a Republican administration, handed off post-inauguration to the Obama Administration in early 2009, and then officially signed by President Obama and President Hu Jintao in November 2019, the first four years of the TYF created a “safe place” – beyond the prying eyes of the press and partisan grandstanders — where officials from the U.S. and China could educate each other about what might be possible and what would be perilous to undertake in their respective administrative and political systems. In short, they learned to trust one another to move in a common direction. The result of this four years of hard work was another official public act by President Obama and the new Chinese President, Xi Jinping, in November 11, 2014.  The two presidents announced with fanfare that, for the first time in over forty years, the U.S. and China were ready to work together to lead the world towards a climate change agreement.  Once that announcement was made between the U.S. and China, all it took was thirteen more months for over 190 other nations to join with the U.S. and China in agreeing to the Paris Accord at the COP21 meeting.

The TYF is a lesson in leadership or, more precisely, co-leadership.  But it’s over.  What relevance does it have in August 2020?  Less than six months into his Presidency, President Trump announced the withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris Accord.  Now, in the lead-up to the November elections, each day brings a new low in U.S.-China relations.  As someone who was serving at the U.S. Consulate General in Shanghai before, during and after Tiananmen, I feel able to make the assessment that we are now at a lower point in the U.S.-China relationship than we were even then.  The question is where to do we go from here?

That question is valid and complicated where our relationship is deeply fraught – advanced technology and global supply chains, minority rights in Xinjiang, political space for Hong Kong and Taiwan, military build-ups in the East and South China Seas – but the question is much simpler where our national interests are clearly aligned – in leading the world’s transition to lower-carbon energy in order to build resilience and mitigate climate change for the planet.  Either the U.S. cedes a mega-industry of the future to China along with leadership of the Paris Accord community of nations or the U.S. steps forward again on the global stage with its unparalleled technology leadership and with renewed political vision.  What will this look like?  It will look like working with allies and not against them. It will involve not just supporting the planting of a billion trees globally and helping Big Coal capture and sequester carbon emissions underground but marshaling across-the-board governmental support to spur innovation across the entire spectrum of low-carbon solutions. It will require us to re-enter the Paris Accord and re-learn how to work productively with China in that particular arena while holding China to account in the many other arenas where our interests are at loggerheads.

Trump’s announcement of U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Accord was on June 1, 2017.  The framers of the Paris Accord, mindful of political cross-winds that can blow in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world, included an Article 28 requirement that a four-year waiting period pass before any country’s withdrawal could be formalized.  The date kicking off that waiting period for the U.S. is November 4, 2016, the day on which the Obama Administration secured ratification by Congress of U.S. entry into the Paris Accord.  So, U.S. withdrawal cannot under any circumstance become official until the day after the upcoming November 3rd election in the U.S.

So there’s the Sixty-Seven Percent solution. With nearly two-thirds of Americans believing the federal government should act more aggressively to combat climate change and with the Paris Accord signatories able to be flexible and eager to welcome a Biden-led America back into the Accord, it’s time for a majority to stand up again in unison.  For each of our poor souls, for our country, for the community of nations and for the planet.

E pluribus (67%) unum.

 

 

 

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