New Report Posits California-China 'Vital Partnership' as a Model for Climate Engagement

A man wears a mask as he waits to cross the road near the CCTV building in Beijing during heavy smog on November 29, 2014. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

On March 4 Asia Society Northern California launches the report A Vital Partnership: California and China Collaborating on Clean Energy and Combatting Climate Change with guests including Nobel Laureate Steven Chu. Learn more

When Jerry Brown was sworn in as California governor for the fourth time in January, he challenged his state to get 50 percent of its energy from renewable resources within 15 years, thus raising the bar even higher on the state’s already high targets. Brown made clear that his environmental ambitions extended beyond his state’s borders. “California basically is presenting a challenge to Washington, to other states and to other countries,” he told reporters.

One country that’s taken a keen interest in California’s climate initiatives is the one that emits more carbon than any other: China. As the country of 1.35 billion grapples with a raft of environmental issues that have emerged from its torrid development of the past three decades, it’s looked to how California has managed to balance environmentalism and economic growth. The result has been a number of high-level Chinese officials stepping past the U.S. federal government to an individual state.

Orville Schell, Arthur Ross director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at Asia Society, has helped compile a report tracking collaborations between China and California that will be launched at Asia Society Northern California in San Francisco on Wednesday, March 4. “This is something of a model,” Schell said. “There’s lots of talk, but with Washington somewhat paralyzed in terms of climate policy, it’s quite frustrating to be writing policy papers aimed at the federal government.”

With a divided U.S. Congress failing to pass any comprehensive national legislation to address climate change, California has gone forward on its own. In 2006, the state passed its Global Warming Solutions Act that featured more than 60 environmental policies, including a cap-and-trade market, a mandate to get 1.5 million zero-emission cars on the road, and a legally-binding requirement for the state to get one-third of its electric power from renewable sources by 2020. The bill was considered one of the most extensive climate change policy measures in the world, and it appears to be working. As of 2014, California was well on its way to meeting its targets with nearly 25 percent of its energy already coming from renewable sources (compared to 13 percent for the U.S. as a whole). And it has done this while maintaining economic and job growth that has outpaced the national average.

In recent years, California has signed agreements to exchange technology and training with several Chinese provinces, cities and regulatory agencies. In 2013, Governor Jerry Brown signed an agreement with the powerful National Development and Reform Commission of China to collaborate on mitigating carbon emissions, making it the first such deal the ministry has ever made with a foreign subnational entity. In addition, California-based civil society organizations, universities, and utility companies have been forging their own engagement with Chinese authorities.

Jiang Lin, senior vice president of China Strategy and Analysis at the Energy Foundation, a San Francisco-based environmental organization that funds sustainable energy initiatives, cited China’s adoption of best practices from California’s cap-and-trade programs in its own carbon trading pilots as one collaboration success story. “Chinese decision makers are much more aware of potential pitfalls of market rules,” Jiang said. “And the Chinese pilot programs have incorporated more robust market designs. Several Chinese provinces and cities have also learned a great deal in California’s experience in reducing air pollution.”

Last November, the U.S. and China announced a “historic” climate change deal in which both countries agreed to curb their greenhouse gas emissions over the next two decades. But critics said this deal didn’t go far enough and won’t likely achieve the sorts of emissions reductions needed to stave off the worst effects of climate change. Schell said that subnational collaborations between individual U.S. states and China could take things further. “Let’s light a candle instead of curse the darkness and find something that’s working,” he said. “If Washington is unable to bear the full responsibility of dealing with climate change for the country, then let’s drop down a level.”

Geoffrey Cowan, president of the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands, has helped facilitate climate change engagement between parties in the U.S. and China. He agrees that these sorts of arrangements have many advantages to over national level deals. “Subnational agreements allow for much greater flexibility, creativity and entrepreneurship,” Cowan said, adding that they encourage governments, schools and individuals to “address problems through the prism of their own strengths and their own regional problems and opportunities.”

About the Author

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