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Sputnik Moment: Historic Meeting Between U.S. and China May Spur a Clean Energy Race

In China, a race toward self-reliance and clean energy technology is certainly on, but the U.S. still needs to make some key changes if it wants to compete.
 
 
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Next week, January 19 to 21, President Obama will host Chinese President Hu Jintao for their first bilateral summit this side of the Pacific. According to former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, this "will be the most important top-level United States-Chinese encounter since Deng Xiaoping's historic trip more than 30 years ago." While economic and military issues will be on the agenda, a key part of the meeting will be energy. U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu has suggested that a Sputnik-like race for clean energy between China and the U.S. may be emerging. If so, how can the U.S. get in the game, given the current political climate in the country?

U.S.-China relations have been rocky over the past two years. At the United Nations climate conference in Copenhagen in 2009, China and the U.S. wound up at a standoff in the summit's final hours.

Tensions hinge on who should take responsibility for the bulk of the emissions. The U.S. blames China, a growing economy and the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, while China blames the U.S., the largest emitter historically and the larger emitter on a per capita basis, by far.

The original UNFCCC charter from 1992 stipulates that developed nations, such as the US, lead the world in fighting climate change, since they bear historical responsibility for producing it. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol echoes and expands this concept, calling on countries to act with "common but differentiated responsibilities," which means while all nations are "responsible," each nation acts according to its ability based on its level of development.

This statement has caused considerable tension between the U.S. and China. While the U.S. rejects "common but differentiated responsibility" and insists that China must step up to the plate, China believes that developed countries should take the lead.

From recent UN negotiations in both Copenhagen and Cancún, it is clear that the U.S. wants an agreement that has "symmetry" -- one that includes reductions commitments from developed and developing countries. China, for its part, is willing to make voluntary commitments but insists that the U.S. sign on to a legally binding agreement.

Additionally, concerns at the UN climate talks revolve around how emissions reductions commitments will be monitored, reported and verified.

Closely linked to the energy issue is the problem of economic protectionism. Last September, the U.S. United Steelworkers (USW) filed a 5,800-page complaint against China with the U.S. Trade Representative, arguing that its renewable energy subsidies violated international trade regulations. The complaint followed on the heels of a call by environmental groups and politicians for higher tariffs to be imposed on China-produced high carbon imports.

In December, Obama sided with the United Steelworkers, filing a complaint with the WTO against China's wind power subsidies and leaving Chinese officials feeling snubbed and victims of a no-win American policy.

According to Dale Jiajun Wen, a scholar at the California-based International Forum on Globalization: "The recent complaints filed by the U.S. union have further consolidated the impression by many Chinese that the U.S. has no real concern for the climate but is only using it as a China-bashing tool. The inconsistency of the U.S. climate and trade policy is too obvious to ignore."

The protectionist tendencies continue unabated: Last week, Obama signed a military authorization law that includes a "Buy American" clause, prohibiting the U.S. Department of Defense from purchasing solar panels made in China and undoubtedly dismaying Chinese officials.

Given these tensions, it remains to be seen what agreement the U.S. and China will reach at the upcoming Washington summit. Last week, Obama announced a shuffle in his Asia and China teams at the National Security Council and State Department in an attempt to hit the reset button on U.S.-China relations.

 
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