This commentary was first published in The Hill.
The future sustainability of the Earth cannot do without the coordinated actions of its two largest carbon polluters — the United States and China.
The most recent highlight in that realm is the U.S.-China Joint Glasgow Declaration on Enhancing Climate Action in the 2020s at the UN climate change conference COP26 in November 2021. The joint statement, which came during a turbulent time in U.S.-China relations, was both surprising and valued. The declaration reaffirms both nations’ commitment to “tackling [climate change] through their respective accelerated actions in the critical decade of the 2020s, as well as through cooperation in multilateral processes.”
The declaration also calls for “concrete actions in the 2020s to reduce emissions aimed at keeping the Paris Agreement-aligned temperature limit within reach,” including in the areas of methane reduction, decarbonization and forest protection.
While the declaration represents a promising step forward and offers reassurances about new momentum for sustained future cooperation, it offers few details regarding concrete plans, nor the opportunities and challenges to enact and implement those plans.
Last fall, we at Stanford University partnered with Peking University to convene a series of discussions on a broad range of themes around U.S.-China collaboration on climate change, such as global sustainable finance, corporate climate pledges, as well as opportunities and challenges for the acceleration of decarbonization in both countries in general — both nationally and by sector — with particular emphasis on power, transportation and industry. The outcomes and insights were synthesized in a report on how to accelerate decarbonization in China and the United States, in which we highlight two urgent recommendations to facilitate constructive cooperation between both nations as they tackle growing environmental challenges.
First, we need open-science research and development (R&D) collaboration.
This must be the case regardless of the politicized environment surrounding U.S.-China relations. Rigorous R&D programs are the foundation of innovative technologies, which can greatly accelerate the energy transition while minimizing disruptions if applied at scale.
Some promising areas for R&D include, but are not limited to, energy-efficient buildings utilizing heat pumps; low-carbon cement and construction; low-carbon agriculture, carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS); power grid infrastructure upgrades; large-scale and long-duration energy storage; and methane leakage prevention and removal.
Unfortunately, U.S.-China cooperation on R&D has been thwarted due to Chinese companies’ theft of proprietary U.S. intellectual property. According to estimates by the National Bureau of Asian Research, U.S. companies incur a loss of between U.S. $225 billion to $600 billion every year due to intellectual property infringement in China. Piracy of intellectual property is of grave concern and must be curbed.
However, the two countries need to realize the crucial difference between fundamental research and proprietary research. Proprietary research, by definition, is owned and must receive its due protection. By contrast, fundamental or basic research is intended to be “out there” for all to learn and build on in advancing the understanding or prediction of phenomena. Therefore, fundamental research should be pursued under terms of academic freedom, especially within universities.
U.S.-China scientific collaboration in fundamental research can be an invaluable tool to build both nations’ capacity in addressing climate change, including protecting supply chains essential for meeting pledged goals, amid rising geopolitical tensions.
Second, we need to be explicitly cognizant of political and institutional constraints.
This is necessary in order to translate promises into progress while protecting social benefits and their equitable distribution amid the green energy transition. As noted in both the joint declaration and our report, bilateral dialogues so far remain very high-level. We need future discussions and workshops at the sectoral and local levels to develop concrete plans. In enacting and implementing concrete plans, political and institutional constraints can pose real obstacles, as demonstrated by China’s past and ongoing efforts to control air pollution.
Hence, strong support from both national and local governments will be critical. As a first step, we need to gain a good understanding of who the relevant actors are in both policymaking and implementation and the incentives they face.
In this period of transition when there are still regional mismatches between energy supply and demand, it is too easy to let short-term needs push climate mitigation goals to the bottom of the barrel to address regional energy shortages. In both countries policymakers and those charged with implementation face multiple and sometimes conflicting goals. The prioritization of goals is shaped by incentive structures. Fostering incentive structures conducive to decarbonization is particularly important during the transitional period when consensus around goals and priorities is less clear.
Furthermore, it is time to standardize standards. A recurring theme across our discussions is the need for shared, clearly specified regulatory frameworks and standards across both nations. Harmonizing standards will expedite trade, validation, accounting, climate pledges and environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) evaluation.
Only if there is standardization can organizations be required to follow unified disclosure practices for making available important information like the amount of carbon emitted. We need to make and implement more legislation to encourage a faster pace of decarbonization, and having unified terminology and standards is conducive to both effective carbon legislation and policy implementation. Common terminology and standards will provide a basis for carbon legislation. Having clearly stipulated standards and procedures can also make implementation easier and more straightforward.
Last but not least, we are hopeful about the future of U.S.-China cooperation on climate change and believe that universities can play a significant role in the global energy transition. Universities are often the birthplaces of innovative technology, training grounds for talent from across the globe, as well as conveners of bilateral and multilateral dialogues. We hope the governments on both sides of the Pacific will work together to hammer out the needed details to build the momentum and make a real impact in the fight against global climate change.
Shiran Victoria Shen is the W. Glenn Campbell and Rita Ricardo-Campbell national fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, as well as an assistant professor of environmental politics at the University of Virginia.
Jean C. Oi is the William Haas professor of Chinese politics, senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute of International Studies, as well as the director of Stanford University’s China Program. She is also the Lee Shau Kee director of the Stanford Center at Peking University.
Yi Cui is the director of Stanford University’s Precourt Institute for Energy, as well as professor of materials science and engineering. He is a senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment, and professor, by courtesy, of Chemistry, Stanford University.
Liang Min is managing director of the Bits & Watts Initiative of the Precourt Institute for Energy at Stanford University.