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CQ Researcher asked me to argue the Pro side of the question “Should the U.S. cooperate with China in the global transition to clean energy.” That Pro/Con feature was published last week as part of the in-depth Geopolitics of Green Energy volume. Followers of Assessing China know that I have published a Wilson Center book advocating for U.S.-China cooperation in clean energy, have led a U.S. Government-awarded sub-national non-profit to advance this cooperation, and taught for three years at the Masters level at UPenn about the importance of sub-national cooperation in clean energy. Oddly, this is the first time I have argued the Pro side in a strict Pro/Con format. (The only other time I have engaged in this format was at Princeton a number of years ago when I was asked, in the spirit of rhetorical debate, to take the Con side which I tried gamely to do). Anyway, the appearance in (digital) print of this piece last Friday is very timely, appearing four days after Presidents Biden and Xi agreed face-to-face in Bali to resume binational U.S.-China climate change cooperation. The following day, the U.S. climate envoy John Kerry, sat down with his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, as they rolled up their sleeves to resume that cooperative work (which Xi Jinping had unilaterally terminated in the wake of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August of this year).

Geopolitics of Green Energy

Pro/Con

Should the U.S. cooperate with China in the global transition to green energy?

The United States should continue to seek cooperation with China in the global transition to green energy for four principal reasons.

Scientifically, the knowledge basis on which the transition depends has no political boundaries. Just as an accurate understanding of human evolution requires archaeological digs in every country, as well as international scientific exchange to synthesize those findings, the scientific foundation for a global low-carbon future is strengthened by U.S.-Chinese scientific cooperation. Of course, that exchange must be conducted on the basis of stringent academic standards and strict safeguards for intellectual property. But scientists recognize that a molecule of any greenhouse gas produced anywhere is bad for our future everywhere.

Commercially, the logic for continued engagement in developing green energy products and services — through trade and investment — outweighs any arguments for decoupling. The U.S. comparative advantage is in basic research and development, technology innovation and the efficiency of our capital markets to bring breakthrough products to scale. China’s comparative advantage is in the size of its market and the market certainty fostered by its top-down political model. It is far more advantageous for the United States to be smart and vigilant in protecting its core assets from unfair trade practices than to forgo access to the world’s largest and still dynamically growing green energy market.

Politically, it is a harder call to make, but there is no reason to turn our backs on political cooperation entirely. From 2009 through 2019, there was a formal program of U.S.-Chinese cooperation on energy and the environment (read “green energy”) signed at the presidential level (and, in its early days, supported on a bipartisan basis in Washington). That framework expired several years ago and, following House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August, China formally terminated all national programs of U.S.-Chinese cooperation. However, cooperation at the level of states, cities and businesses can and should proceed when it is in the interest of those entities to do so. The absence of a binational framework makes that subnational cooperation more difficult but is not a reason to forgo it.

Morally, the issue could not be clearer. Transition to a green energy future is not an option, it is a necessity. The current moment presents us — as a species — with an existential threat of our own making and forces us again to prove our species’ resilience and ability to adapt. Cooperation, not conflict, improves our odds for pulling that off.

The idea that cooperation is needed between the United States and China, the world’s largest energy consumers, to tackle global energy challenges sounds almost tautological.

The high point of such cooperation was 2014, when Presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama jointly announced their new climate commitments, winning support for their proposals in both countries while adding crucial momentum to the process leading up to the 2015 Paris agreement. Since then, the political dynamics in both countries have changed in a way that would make such a joint announcement politically unattractive. This was clear when China announced in 2020 that it would reach carbon neutrality in 2060 and when it pledged last year to stop building coal power plants overseas. Both announcements were unilateral.

The two countries do not need technology or financing from one another. Rather, both are keen to ensure that they have decoupled their supply chains for key strategic technologies and resources.

Xi has set low-carbon development as a strategic priority for China, for obvious reasons: China’s food security, water resources and the regional security environment — all key strategic issues — would be jeopardized by runaway climate change. Clean energy technology is thus now firmly positioned as a strategic sector for national security.

Xi’s announcement of the carbon neutrality goal triggered a dramatic expansion in domestic deployment of clean energy and manufacturing of clean energy technology, particularly solar power equipment, batteries and electric vehicles. China is positioning itself to supply the vast majority of the equipment and technology for the global green energy transition.

The best thing the United States can do is to scale up clean energy deployment and manufacturing at home and increase financing and support for clean energy in developing countries.

China’s leaders have been skeptical of the ability of the often-unruly processes in democratic countries to deliver and implement, scorning their climate pledges as “vague promises.” If Chinese leaders were to see the United States and the European Union pulling ahead with 100 percent clean electricity, smart grids, electrified transport, zero-carbon manufacturing and major financing and technology partnerships with the developing world, China would accelerate its own transition.

The United States and China do still have a shared interest in the success of international climate talks. There are opportunities for coordination and dialogue, but they need to be based on a clear-eyed appreciation of shared and conflicting interests.

Hope you enjoyed the debate. I have allowed comments on this post so please feel free to weigh in with your perspective. Would love to hear from you.

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