Blog Post

U.S. & China: Green Competitors and Allies

Nixon Mao The world’s two largest greenhouse gas emitters are waiting for the other one to back down first. Breaching the standoff, the U.S. and China have come together to renew two biofuels cooperation pacts. The Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Department of Energy (DOE), and China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) signed two cooperative biofuel agreements this week.

Kerry Trueman at the Huffington Post described U.S.-China carbon relations as follows: “We’re locked in an existential game of ‘chicken’ with China, each nation daring the other not to take its foot off the gas pedal as we careen towards catastrophe. We don’t want to change the way we live, and the Chinese want to live the way we do, too.” So far, at UN climate change convention in Bali, both sides have verbally and vaguely committed themselves to fighting climate change, but as the two fossil-fueled economic giants move forward, any ground given up by one is perceived as being taken by the other. Can the world’s two largest carbon emitters actually work together?

The first agreement renewed by the two countries was the “Agricultural Science and Technology Protocol,” a 2002 protocol aimed at facilitating the exchange of technical know-how in a variety of areas, including biofuels and water for agricultural purposes. The second pact was the “Biofuels Cooperation Memorandum of Understanding,” for the coordination of technology as well as policy in developing better biofuels.

Both China and the U.S. have set — or are trying to set — ambitious biofuel production goals. While the U.S. Congress bats around an energy and a farm bill that could facilitate the production of 36 billion gallons of liquid biofuels by 2020, China has set a goal of producing 30 gigawatts of electricity from biomass by 2020. In the meantime, however, the domestic biofuel industry is experiencing some major growing pains and many ethanol producers are holding off on increasing production “until market conditions improve.” All of this follows last week’s filing by China’s largest biodiesel producer, Gushan, for a listing on the New York Stock Exchange.

In the debate over both the Farm and Energy Bills, any growth in renewable energy is always phrased in terms of a loss for fossil energy and the American economy. But in China, where growth in all forms is the game, any energy growth is perceived as a good thing. While the Chinese are ramping up their biofuels and renewables portfolios, they certainly aren’t slowing down their development of their coal resources.

While the renewal of these two pacts is both positive and forward-looking, actual change in greenhouse gas emissions and positive pressure for the cleantech industry will come if the U.S. and China can sign some meaningful resolutions (perhaps a contradiction in terms) at Bali. Some have called for an “environmental moonshot” to get us to overcome the obstacles of global warming. Perhaps a green race for cleantech supremacy over China will be what motivates the U.S. to invest in green technologies the way they invested in technology during the Cold War.