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  • Toward a New Era of US Engagement with China on Climate Change
  • Joanna I. Lewis (bio)

If Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden wins in November 2020, climate change will suddenly be back at the center of the US political agenda. Even if President Trump wins a second term, we are entering a pivotal decade in determining whether we rule out moving to an emissions pathway that will avoid the most dangerous impacts of climate change. Given our respective contributions to global emissions, there is no global solution to climate change without the United States and China. As history has shown, demonstrating China's own leadership on climate change is crucial to US support for climate action,1 and USChina cooperation on climate change has proven pivotal to mobilizing international climate action.2 This paper therefore argues that a reset of the US-China relationship on climate change is crucial, and it lays out an agenda for how to move forward. Recognizing that the US-China relationship has fundamentally changed in the past few years and that any engagement will need to look different from how it has looked in the past, this paper explores what we can learn from the lessons of past cooperation to ensure that progress on addressing climate change does not become a casualty of a deteriorating US-China relationship.

Looking Back

Cooperation on climate and energy has long been part of the US-China relationship, throughout both Republican and Democratic administrations. The nature of the cooperation has evolved significantly over the past three decades since the signing of the US-China Agreement on Cooperation in Science and Technology in 1979.3 Historically, energy and other environmental technology were at the core of the cooperation agenda along with more fundamental science and technology (S&T) issues, with climate change policy entering the picture later.

Even though the George W. Bush administration refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, it pursued a relatively progressive international climate agenda, at least when compared with the Trump administration. It launched two major multilateral climate initiatives that directly engaged China: The Major Economies Meeting (MEM) and the Asia Pacific Partnership (APP). In addition, the US-China Strategic Economic Dialogue (SED), led by Secretary Hank Paulson and the Treasury Department, led to the establishment of the US-China Ten-Year Framework for Cooperation on Energy and Environment (TYF). The TYF laid out robust bilateral cooperation agendas on clean electricity, clean water, clean air, clean transportation, and forest conservation.4 Though the SED was rebranded under the [End Page 173] Obama administration as the Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED), with the State Department and Treasury Department now co-chairing the dialogue for the United States, the TYF persisted for another few years as a key pillar of bilateral cooperation on energy and climate, until much of its work was folded into new agreements.5

The Obama administration brought USChina climate cooperation to a new level. During its first year, the Obama administration placed a renewed focus on energy and climate change issues in the US-China relationship by establishing a new set of agreements on clean-energy topics. The first Obama administration announcement on US-China energy cooperation came in July 2009 in conjunction with Secretary of Energy Steven Chu's first official trip to China. During this trip the US Department of Energy (DOE) signed a protocol with China's Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) and the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) announcing plans to develop a US–China Clean Energy Research Center (CERC).6 Later that year, a US–China presidential summit prompted a significant set of new agreements on joint energy and climate cooperation between the two countries, including on electric vehicles, energy efficiency, renewable energy, clean coal, and shale gas.7

Only in 2013 did international climate policy become central to the bilateral agenda with the establishment of the Climate Change Working Group (CCWG).8 Work through the CCWG and other high- level channels paved the way for the 2014 joint US-China announcement of climate goals, which allowed for new global leverage leading into the final stage of negotiations on the Paris Agreement.9 Ongoing high-level...


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pp. 173-181
Launched on MUSE
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