The US and China Go Local on Climate Cooperation


Climate change will likely be a major agenda item during the upcoming summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama, as the two leaders seek to advance climate change cooperation prior to December’s UN-led climate negotiations in Paris. While the Paris convention will focus on national and international commitments, cooperative efforts between the U.S. and China are increasingly occurring at more local levels. This trend looks set to continue, and reflects larger-scale subnational climate cooperation all over the world.

The U.S.-China Climate Leaders Summit was held in Los Angeles on September 15-16, and brought together a range of officials seeking local-to-local partnerships for addressing climate challenges. The list of participants signaled seriousness by both parties, with Vice President Joe Biden, climate envoy Todd Stern, California Governor Jerry Brown, and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti in attendance alongside Chinese leaders from Beijing, Shenzhen, Guangdong, and numerous other major cities and provinces.

Xi followed up on these efforts during his September 22 Seattle visit, at which five U.S. state governors signed an accord to reduce transportation emissions, support clean energy technologies, and exchange ideas with their Chinese counterparts.

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Such efforts have the potential to both complement and in some cases overtake the range and reach of highly publicized international climate accords.

Subnational Progress in the U.S.

American intransigence on the international climate stage is well documented. While U.S. negotiators have been active architects for key climate accords, multiple administrations and congresses have resisted entering binding international emissions reductions commitments. This avoidance created and perpetuated divisions between the U.S. and most of its OECD peers, and has impeded global climate change mitigation efforts for decades.

Beneath this much-maligned national inaction has been a steady maturation of climate change mitigation efforts in U.S. regions, states, and cities. Nine states in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic have operated a Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) since 2008, which caps CO2 emissions from power plants and facilitates their trade among participants. Thirty-five of the fifty U.S. states have some form of mandate for producing more electricity from non-fossil fuel sources. California launched its own cap- and- trade market, and passed legislation this week to double energy efficiency in buildings and generate half of the state’s electricity from renewable sources by 2030. Seattle has committed to become carbon-neutral by 2050, and has an implementation plan focusing on transportation, building efficiency and waste disposal. These areas are densely populated engines of the U.S. economy, and their combined climate mitigation efforts may significantly alter the U.S. emissions trajectory.

The Obama administration is upscaling federal support for such subnational efforts, with programs such as a Climate Action Champion initiative providing resources to communities to increase resilience and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The administration also touts subnational actions as evidence that the U.S. is a responsible climate change stakeholder, or, as Obama’s senior advisor Brian Deese states, that the U.S. is “taking seriously our obligations.”

China’s Thousand Mile Journey

China’s subnational efforts begin from a different starting point but target similar outcomes. While China has long emphasized its development needs in international climate fora, it has grown increasingly responsive to its own vulnerability to the climate change and conventional pollution accompanying its growth – particularly in urban zones.

As such, China is building a climate response regime that begins with cities. In 2011, China launched seven regional carbon market pilots in five cities and two provinces. The pilot areas comprise roughly 25 percent of China’s annual GDP, bringing over 1,100 gigatons of CO2 equivalent under regulation. By late 2014, these programs had resulted in trades of over 4 million tons of carbon emissions quotas, making China an emissions trader second in volume only to the European Union.

These efforts – relevant in their own right – also underpin China’s plans to launch a national emissions trading scheme in 2016 that will instantly become the world’s largest. Local efforts make such future actions less formidable, and are framed by leaders through the ancient philosophies of Lao Tzu as the first steps of a thousand mile journey.

Expanding Cooperation

Both nations’ leaders see subnational cooperation as a near-term strategy for working towards national climate change goals the countries mutually agreed to in late 2014.

To this end, the Los Angeles summit launched the California-China Urban Climate Collaborative, an initiative bringing together research institutions, ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability, the California-China Office of Trade and Investment, the Bay Area Council, and the Asia Society to assist policymakers in climate action planning and collaboration. Shenzhen, Guangdong, and Los Angeles signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to expand best practice cooperation to reduce emissions, while a collection of institutes pledged to design and implement carbon market training programs in China, and to introduce California’s zero-emission vehicle credit trading mechanism in Beijing. Los Angeles and Beijing are also planning a litany of cooperative measures on low-carbon urban planning and transportation, while Los Angeles and Zhenjiang have become the first cities to endorse the Subnational Global Climate Leadership MoU. Signatories to this MoU have committed to either reduce greenhouse gas emissions from 80 to 95 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 or achieve a per capita annual emissions target of less than 2 metric tons by 2050, while seeking to influence global climate negotiations through their own concrete local actions.

Feeding into the Global Climate Picture

Localized climate efforts respond in part to frustration with slow international progress, and serve to rebuke top-down models that leave states, cities, and firms dealing with uncertainty and vulnerability. They also feed into global objectives, however, and when emphasized in large high-emitting countries they attain growing international relevance.

Urban spaces are becoming larger and more powerful, while accounting for growing portions of the global emissions total. The United Nations projects that 66 percent of the world’s population will be urban by 2050, up from 54 percent in 2014 and 30 percent in 1950. It is thus not surprising that the U.S. and China view local cooperation as a pathway to reaching larger goals, and have chosen the Los Angeles summit as a forum to publicly redouble their climate change efforts.

Cities and subnational territories also serve as laboratories that can provide valuable models for national and international policymaking. As Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti states, “when two nations, great nations, step up not to point fingers, not to ask questions, but to commit to life-saving changes, we can deliver this not just for our nations but to inspire the world.” Such sentiments carry growing weight in light of Obama and Xi’s upcoming meetings, and are vital to the future of the global environment.

Jackson Ewing is Director of Asian Sustainability with the Asia Society Policy Institute in New York. Juan Wei is Sustainability Program Manager with Asia Society Northern California in San Francisco.

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