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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Clinton Takes on China

Air Date: Week of

Secretary Clinton announces the appointment of Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern. (Photo: Michael Gross, Courtesy of the State Department)

Hillary Clinton's first trip as Secretary of State will put the spotlight on global warming. Living on Earth's Washington correspondent Jeff Young reports that there are high hopes for a breakthrough in the long climate stalemate between China and the United States.


GELLERMAN: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is on her way to China. It’s her first trip overseas as the top U.S diplomat and near the top of her agenda is climate change.

China and the United States are the world’s biggest producers of greenhouse gases and any hope of a global agreement to reduce emissions will require getting the industrial rivals to find common ground — it’s a task made a lot tougher by the current economic downturn.

But as Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports, Clinton’s trip comes amid new optimism that a breakthrough agreement just might be possible.

YOUNG: For more than a decade China and the US have been frozen in place on global warming. Neither will agree to cut greenhouse gas pollution if it gives the other a competitive edge. The US says China will steal jobs; China says climate colonialism limits its right to lift people from poverty. Each used the other as an excuse for inaction in round after round of fruitless international talks.

With her trip to China, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seems intent on breaking that stalemate.

CLINTON: We will also vigorously pursue negotiations that can lead to binding international climate agreements. No solution is feasible without all major emitting nations joining together and playing an important part.

YOUNG: Clinton made those comments when appointing her special envoy on climate change, Todd Stern, who will travel with her to China. Their talks are expected to include ways the nations can share technology to improve energy efficiency, capture CO2 emissions from power plants and, eventually, agree on ways each country can reduce emissions. And Chinese officials seem receptive.

XIE FENG: We are all living under the same azure sky, on the same planet. The earth is our common home. It is the only home we have.

YOUNG: No that’s not a Sierra Clubber speaking, it’s Xie Feng, a high ranking minister at China’s embassy in the US, waxing poetic about his country’s commitment to dealing with climate change. At an Asia Society event at the Capitol, Xie listed actions his country has taken to improve auto fuel efficiency, close some of its dirtiest power plants and keep forests intact. And he greeted the new Obama administration’s stance on climate warmly.

XIE FENG: We are pleased to note that President Obama also puts energy and climate change on the top of his to-do list. As long as the two sides work in the same direction, we are ready to work closely with the US side to play an active and responsible role in promoting international cooperation on energy and climate change.


YOUNG: However laudable the goals, there are serious questions about what progress China is really making and little ability to independently verify its efforts.
And for every report of a dirty power plant closing down, there are projections that energy hungry China will increase its CO2-spewing coal power.

Secretary Clinton announces the appointment of Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern. (Photo: Michael Gross, Courtesy of the State Department)

Which is the real picture of China’s energy policy?


CLAUSSEN: I think it’s both, Hah!

YOUNG: That’s Eileen Claussen of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

CLAUSSEN: Will they continue to build coal plants? I think they will. Do they care about climate change? I think they do. I believe that the challenge is to find a way to burn coal so that it does not harm the climate.

YOUNG: So to a large degree the China question is the coal question?

CLAUSSEN: I think that is the most important question. And if we can’t deal with this technologically, nothing else we do, no matter how many agreements we sign, we won’t be able to address climate change.

YOUNG: The Pew center and Asia Society released a report they call a roadmap to US China cooperation on climate change. At the top of the list: sharing technology on coal, especially ways to capture and safely store CO2 emissions.

Of course there are nagging doubts about whether such technology, called carbon capture and storage, is worth the cost, or even possible on the large scale required. But if you’re looking for common ground in the China-US climate conundrum, coal is it. Coal generates about half the electricity in the US. And Duke University visiting fellow Jon Anda says it’s an even greater part of China’s fuel mix.

ANDA: It’s everything in China—China, climate, coal. If you look at projections going to 2030, you have one fuel, coal and three countries U.S., China and India – that is over half the CO2 emitted in the world. Three countries, one fuel. So you have to get at it and the U.S. and China engaging on coal I think is a really good way to start talking.

YOUNG: Global warming won’t be the only crisis on Clinton’s agenda - there’s also that matter of the global financial meltdown. That means heightened economic and trade tensions, less capital for clean tech investment, and further complications for any climate talks. But it could also mean a chance for a fresh look at how energy and the economy intersect. Orville Schell directs the center on US-China Relations at the Asia Society.

SCHELL: It’s precisely at moments like this, when everything breaks down, where the old systems melt away, that it is possible to reformat things and build new institutions and new ways of doing things. And I actually think we are entering such a period.


YOUNG: I caught up with Chinese embassy minister Xie Feng briefly after his talk to the Asia Society. Xie says China has some 20 million rural workers now jobless. But he echoed Schell’s thought that dark times could be turned to a brighter outcome. In fact, Xie says, the Chinese word for crisis implies that very thing.

XIE FENG: The Chinese word for crisis is pronounced as “wei ji.” “Wei” stands for danger, and “ji” stands for opportunity. So, if you handle them properly then the danger can turn into opportunity. [Laughs] Hopefully this will be the case on the climate change and energy.

YOUNG: No one expects Secretary Clinton to return from her first trip with a climate agreement in hand. But observers from both sides of the Pacific have high hopes for important first steps in a new direction.

For Living on Earth I’m Jeff Young in Washington.

GELLERMAN: And this note: United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon is expected to invite President Obama and other world leaders to a climate change "mini-summit" in New York at the end of March. Reportedly, the purpose of the meeting would be to ensure that the world financial crisis does not disrupt the process towards a new global climate change agreement.

The Secretary General has declared 2009 the year of climate change.

[MUSIC: Zuco 103 “Outro Lado” from Brazil 2 Mil (Six Degrees Records 2005)]

GELLERMAN: Just ahead – Farmed salmon versus wild salmon. There’s more at stake than just fish. Keep listening to Living on Earth!



Roadmap for U.S.-China cooperation on climate change from Asia Society and Pew Center

U.S. State Dept. office on global climate change

Linguistic quibbling about the translation of the Chinese term for "crisis"


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