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

Obama in China

Air Date: Week of

As the climate change summit in Copenhagen draws near, President Obama’s visit to Asia raises speculation about how the U.S. and China will collaborate on reducing greenhouse gases while continuing to use coal-fired power plants. Orville Schell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society, tells host Jeff Young about the difficulties both countries currently face in forming an agreement.


YOUNG: As we mentioned, climate change will be on the agenda when President Obama visits Beijing. No international climate treaty is possible without the world’s two biggest carbon polluters, who still have a world of differences to overcome. Orville Schell directs the Center on US-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York. Mr. Schell, what can the president’s trip do to put a larger climate change agreement within reach?

SCHELL: Well one hopes that the US and China could effect some sort of a new collaboration. But the United States does not have a lot of money to put on the table, and when China thinks of leadership from the United States, that’s one of the things that is certainly on the table. We’ve had many memoranda of understanding and what we’re looking for here is the next sort of quantum leap in collaboration – a concrete project of some sort between the two countries, aimed at ameliorating climate change.

YOUNG: So, if we’re lacking the cash to sweeten the deal, might sharing energy technology be a way to achieve that?

SCHELL: Well, I think China’s very interested in sharing technology with the United States and I think there are some arrangements where the government could ensure risk.

YOUNG: What are we talking about there, ensure risk?

SCHELL: Well, many American companies are extremely worried that if they allow their technology to transfer to China, that China will reverse engineer it, and in effect steal it. And so, if there was a way for governments to ensure that technology would not be stolen, and if it was, there would be some payback. This would facilitate things.

YOUNG: I guess the larger issue with technology sharing though, is we’re also technology competitors. I mean most people in the US look at China and think, that’s the competition here.

SCHELL: Well, this is true, and yet there are times when you look at certain kinds of drugs that we make available that government ensures lower cost for developing countries – for instance in Africa. But, it might behoove the two governments to find a way to actually buy or license certain kinds of technology that would be useful in both countries. And in effect subsidize it so companies can make money and the technology at the same time can be tested and used. So, if the US can find a way to do some of its testing here and at the same time collaborate with China to some there. That would be the best outcome, but it gets down to a question of who’s got the resources to do it.

YOUNG: Your center recently published a paper on how we might share technology on what’s called “carbon capture and storage”. This is about ways to strip the CO2 from the emissions, from primarily coal-fired power plants. What do you think is possible there?

SCHELL: Well, I think carbon capture and sequestration is the answer to the continued use of coal. Now, we did release a roadmap that sort of suggests how the Obama administration could cooperate immediately with China on this front. We’re not saying this is the only area that begs cooperation, nor are we saying that it is the best area. We’re saying it is one of a number of inevitable areas that we need to collaborate on. Energy efficiency would be another; renewable energy would be a third. China, I think it’s fair to say, is waiting for the United States to reassume a leadership role in this field and whether we will be able to rise to the occasion remains to be seen.

YOUNG: What do we know about the conservation ethic in China, in general? Is this an area where the Chinese public feels strongly, is motivated to act?

SCHELL: More and more, China and the Chinese populous at large are becoming aware of the consequences of kinds of environmental degradation that they are experiencing firsthand. In the last two or three years I’ve seen a literally stunning evolution of consciousness of the dangers of climate change in China. Now, I think leaders really do begin to understand this has grave long-term consequences, and rather serious short-term consequences, even for a country like China. To wit, the melting of the glaciers in the Himalayas and the Caracorum, where every major river’s relying on these watersheds.

YOUNG: What’s the likelihood of a kind of meaningful deal coming from the President’s trip, or Copenhagen, or any other summit coming down the road?

SCHELL: Well, I’m not tremendously optimistic that the President’s trip can actually move the mountain. And part of that reason is Congress – is that without the United States making some investment in a remedy, and in collaboration with China, and that takes money and I don’t think Congress is about to do that. It’s going to be very hard to do what needs to be done unless the US and China get together. And unless we find a way to get together, especially around the question of coal, we will not find a remedy for climate change globally.

YOUNG: Orville Schell directs the Center on US-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York. Thanks very much.

SCHELL: A pleasure.



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