Climate a bright spot in China relationship

Rising rivalry: A four-part series on US-China tensions

The recent flare-up in tensions in the Pacific has raised new doubts about America and China’s ability to peacefully coexist as both set their sights on Asia’s booming potential.

On a range of issues — from territorial claims to business practices, economic policies to the environment — the two countries’ struggle to find common ground is all but certain to dominate the headlines for years to come.

Staff writer Julian Pecquet visited China for 10 days in October at the invitation of the China-United States Exchange Foundation, a Hong Kong-based nonprofit that funds visits by lawmakers, journalists and others. He found that Beijing’s suspicions about the great power across the Pacific mirrored those in Washington, DC.

  

BEIJING — The Obama administration's push to help clean up China is emerging as a bright spot in a relationship rife with economic and strategic tensions.

The failure of the world's two largest economies to agree on tough carbon emissions limits four years ago doomed substantial progress on climate change and left each side blaming the other.

Since the Copenhagen talks, however, the U.S. and China have ramped up their environmental cooperation as repeated outbreaks of thick, acrid smog have virtually shut down major Chinese cities and cost the country hundreds of billions of dollars a year.

“For a period of time the two countries sort of used each other as sort of an excuse not to take much action. But now I think there's a better opportunity,” said Ma Jun, a leading Chinese environmentalist and director of the nonprofit Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs in Beijing. “Together I think we can make a huge contribution to global pollution control.”

The recent pollution scares have awakened the Chinese government to the dangers of unbridled economic growth at the expense of the environment. Policymakers and activists are looking to the U.S. for guidance because of its own experience passing environmental legislation such as the Clean Air Act, said Barbara Finamore, director of the China program at the New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council.

“What I see happening here is the public concern driving public policy,” Finamore told The Hill. “It's similar in some ways to what happened [in the U.S.] in the late 1960s, early 1970s.”

Recent examples of cooperation include a renewed pledge by the U.S. and China to tackle climate change, efforts by U.S. companies to force their Chinese suppliers to clean up their operations and advice from the Environmental Protection Agency on laws and regulations China should consider.

“China and the U.S. are the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. We are the largest economies. We have the largest energy demand,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy told CNN during a visit to Hong Kong earlier this month. “If the two of us can work together, we can become a model for other countries to follow.”

Beijing and local governments are clamoring for U.S. technologies for air monitoring and pollution control, McCarthy said.

“[China] has made a much more committed effort to take a look at these issues and try to work through them,” she told CNN. “That's why EPA is here, trying to provide support to that exercise.”

EPA efforts have included working with the Chinese government to develop a cap on sulfur dioxide emissions and promote cleaner fuels. The next step: Requiring factories to report their emissions, as they're required to do in the United States and across Europe.

“In China we have more than 20 major environmental legislations regulating all kinds of things,” said Ma. “But there's one major gap: The factories don't have to release what kinds of pollutants they release and how much.”

Finamore said her group is working with the EPA and activists on getting China to adopt such standards.

“We're launching a new project with Ma Jun to try to promote the establishment of a system for corporations to report their emissions on a regular basis and to make sure it's enforced,” she said.

The Chinese public's demands for more information has in turn made it possible for consumers around the world to demand accountability from U.S. and other firms that rely on China's role as the “workshop to the world.” Ma's group has created a national pollution map tracking some 100,000 factories and worked with U.S. firms such as Apple to get them to force their Chinese suppliers to cut down on pollution.

“Consumers can enjoy cheaper products made in China but during the process we do have a problem of much of the waste getting dumped in our back yards, contaminating the soil, the aquifer, the waterways and the air,” Ma said. “When we started engaging with some of the brands they'd say, 'oh, sorry, I don't know who is polluting and who is not so I just buy from the cheapest.' But that's no longer true.”

Finamore credited Secretary of State John Kerry for the improved cooperation over the past year. She pointed notably to this April's climate change agreement calling for both countries to take “forceful, nationally appropriate action … including large-scale cooperative action”

“The idea was, by working together in areas of common interest, it would build trust between the two countries that would carry over into the negotiating table,” she said. “And I think it has. During the last round of climate negotiations [in Warsaw last month] it was a much different tone than in Copenhagen.”

Ma said both countries share a “global responsibility” to tackle pollution as the world's “worst greenhouse gas emitters.”

“Since we share this earth, we need to understand that when all the countries try to join the rich man's club, each of us needs to make an effort if we don't want this only mother planet to be destroyed,” he said. “We all need to cooperate.”