Vice President Joe Biden had it right in his recent visit to China. Global stability, he declared in an August 18 speech in Beijing “rests in no small part on the cooperation between the United States and China.”
The U.S. vice president was referring to economic stability. But the world’s ability to come up with a stable and sustainable energy and environmental policy for the 21st century will also depend significantly on cooperation between the world’s current and emerging superpowers. As I have found from my experience in China, Beijing’s door is increasingly open to such cooperation. The United States would do well to come knocking.
I visited China at the same time as Biden and was excited by the growing receptiveness of both government and business to tackle today’s most pressing energy and environmental challenges, not least climate change. In the three years since WRI opened an office in Beijing, I have watched the Chinese government move from cautious interest in cooperation with U.S. NGOs and government agencies to an eagerness to pursue large-scale, solutions-focused partnerships.
The reasons for this welcome shift in attitude are not hard to discern. On the one hand, China’s urgent environmental problems, including air and water pollution, water scarcity and rapid urbanization threaten to undermine its impressive economic progress. On the other, it sees great economic potential in a clean energy future.
China’s rapid urbanization, in particular, poses both an immense challenge and a fertile opportunity for smart, sustainable growth. By 2030, more than 200 cities in China will have at least one million people. In contrast, only 35 cities in Europe have a similar population today.
Over the next few years, at their request, WRI will support efforts by China’s national and local governments to reshape urban growth. The latest Five Year Plan puts a priority on building environmentally sustainable urban infrastructure. We will help several fast-growing cities in China to draw up and implement blueprints for more livable cities by pursuing energy-efficient transport systems, water supply conservation measures, and more.
As the world’s largest single emitter of greenhouse gases, China’s efforts to reduce emissions have global implications. And here, too, they are increasingly looking for international support. After painstakingly building trust with Chinese authorities, WRI has worked successfully for several years with the country’s emissions-intensive cement sector to measure and manage its carbon footprint, and we are now developing a city-level emissions accounting framework tailored for China.
And on water risk, a growing issue for drought-prone areas of both China and the United States, we are pioneering the application of a new database-driven risk mapping and mitigation tool, Aqueduct, in the Yellow River Basin in northern China.
Of course efforts such as these by one international institute are a small first step compared with what large-scale national cooperation between the U.S. and China on clean energy and sustainable growth could achieve.
As the vice-president was keen to emphasize, relations between the two countries are at a high point. Hopefully the global environment - as well as the global economy - can be a beneficiary.