April 16, 2013

The United States and China to Increase Dialogue on Climate Change

Saturday marked John Kerry’s inaugural visit to China as acting Secretary of State. While North Korea’s most recent episode of belligerence took center stage and dominated the news, the United States and China also released a joint statement promising cooperation on climate change.

The joint statement called for “forceful” action on climate change through “large-scale” cooperation. According to the statement,

Both sides also noted the significant and mutual benefits of intensified action and cooperation on climate change, including enhanced energy security, a cleaner environment, and more abundant natural resources. They also reaffirmed that working together both in the multilateral negotiation and to advance concrete action on climate change can serve as a pillar of the bilateral relationship, build mutual trust and respect, and pave the way for a stronger overall collaboration. Both sides noted a common interest in developing and deploying new environmental and clean energy technologies that promote economic prosperity and job creation while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

While this is not the first example of engagement between the United States and China on climate change, it is notably different than previous arrangements. The agreement increases dialogue by forming a Climate Change Working Group to determine specific ways in which the two countries can advance climate cooperation through research, conservation and technology. The Working Group will deliver a report at July’s Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED), which is an annual meeting between American and Chinese cabinet level officials to discuss broad strategic, economic and security opportunities and challenges.

The S&ED is not the panacea for building a stronger friendship between the United States and China. However, it is, according to experts, “a node in an ongoing dialogue that aims to support the concept of cooperation” that can build trust and mutual understanding. The 2012 S&ED produced 50 strategic outcomes in bilateral cooperation, including strengthening the Strategic Security Dialogue, the only bilateral mechanism for civilian and military officials to discuss security issues, and 67 economic outcomes.

By incorporating climate change into the S&ED, the agreement elevates climate dialogue to the ministerial level. This raises the legitimacy of climate change as an area of shared strategic interest and brings it into the foreground during high level discussions. Including dialogue on climate cooperation into broader strategic negotiations could increase the potential for constructive action, despite the historic divisiveness of climate change in the multinational arena.

Particularly in today’s context, climate change represents a potential area of cooperation and engagement between China and the United States. China is wrestling with a significant pollution problem, and new leaders in both countries acknowledge the importance of environmental issues. China’s new Prime Minister, Li Keqiang, has signaled a willingness to consider the environmental impacts of unbridled economic growth, and Secretary Kerry is making climate change a priority for the State Department.

Increasing the dialogue on climate change may not lead to drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions any time soon, and it will not, on its own, solve complex security issues or the problem areas in U.S.-Chinese relations. But this agreement shows that both countries are interested in constructive engagement on climate change, and such dialogue could facilitate mutual trust and increased cooperation between the United States and China on climate change and more divisive issues. 

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