How California and China Can Fight Climate Change as Washington 'Falls Apart'

Mathew Rodriguez, Drew Bohan, Orville Schell, and Bruce Pickering discuss environmental policy and regulation in China and California. (1 hr., 5 min.)

Since climate change denier Donald Trump was elected president of the United States with a Republican-controlled congress, there has been concern that the U.S. under his leadership will neglect its commitments laid out in the Paris Climate Change Agreement. China, which jointly adopted the accord with the United States in a “breakthrough” deal last year, has been especially concerned. “The Paris agreement is a milestone in the history of climate governance,” Chinese President Xi Jinping said in Geneva in January. “We must ensure this endeavor is not derailed.”

But uncertainty within the U.S. federal government may prompt Chinese leaders and businesses to expand upon what they’ve already been doing for years: seeking cooperation at lower levels with entities like the state of California. “In the next couple of years, it's incumbent upon us all to turn our attention to those areas of American governance that are still functional,” said Orville Schell, director of Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations. “I take great heart in what California is doing. However, I think it also needs to write itself somewhat larger … There is something of a model emerging here for other states.”

Schell was speaking at the San Francisco launch of the Asia Society report A Clear Opportunity: U.S.-China Collaboration on Clean Air, which explores the potential for U.S.-China collaboration on clean air technologies and policies. In particular, the report notes how California has cultivated private sector innovation through environmental regulations.

Also speaking at the event, California Secretary for Environmental Protection Matt Rodriguez said that when he was appointed to his position in 2011, newly elected California Governor Jerry Brown set ambitious goals for combating climate change, including getting half of the state’s energy from renewable resources by 2030. These goals met with skepticism within the state government about whether it was wise for California — which was running large deficits at the time — to unilaterally subject itself to stricter environmental regulation that could put it at an economic disadvantage. But one of his first meetings was with a delegation of Chinese government officials interested in California’s climate program, which illustrated that they wouldn’t be going it alone.

“What became immediately clear to me upon talking to them was that they knew more about California's then nascent cap and trade program than I did,” Rodriguez recalled. “They also knew about our air quality programs and they were interested in dealing with what they saw as a growing problem in air quality in China. That initial interaction with the Chinese government gave me an argument when I was talking with the California legislature.”

Later that year, Brown signed an agreement with China’s powerful National Development and Reform Commission to collaborate on mitigating carbon emissions. It was the first such agreement the ministry had made with a foreign subnational entity — something Schell said should be replicated by other regions. “The problem is that traditionally speaking, states and cities don't have state departments — they don't have a foreign policy,” he said. “California has begun to act more and more like a nation-state. This is very hopeful because as things fall apart in Washington, they seem to be coming together out on the peripheries.”

Rodriguez said that Trump’s election has prompted California to recommit to its own unilateral international cooperation. “There may be some question as to where the U.S. federal government is going on this, but we're not going to wait for them,” he said. “We need to be more committed to working with China and making sure the good working relationship we've established so far continues, and that it stays visible.”

Schell added that these collaborations aren’t just a matter of Americans “teaching the poor benighted Chinese.” China has been innovating on its own and harbors “incomparable opportunities” for testing and scaling up among its 1.35 billion-strong population. “If the U.S. is a fountainhead of ideas, it seems we often don't follow through, or can't follow through, so effectively in putting an idea into practice,” he said. “This is where China excels.”

In the above video, Schell, Rodriguez, and California Energy Commission Chief Deputy Director Drew Bohan discuss China-California climate change cooperation. In the video below, private sector representatives discuss how private capital and innovation between China and California are addressing climate issues.

Jeffrey Ball, Tonny Xie, John McQuown, and Andy Swanton discuss green investment, technology innovation, and market opportunities in China and California. (59 min., 29 sec.)

About the Author

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Eric Fish is a Content Producer at Asia Society New York and author of the book China's Millennials: The Want Generation.