GG2022 – China vs. U.S.: Localizing the Great Climate Game

By Iris Ferguson - 15 July 2013

Iris Ferguson suggests that the mechanisms for traditional top-down governance seem to be broken when it comes to climate change.

With the “climate plan” presented by U.S. President Obama in June and the renewed focus of China’s President Xi on curbing carbon and pollution in China’s smog-filled cities, one would think that the world’s two largest energy consumers are finally getting their act together.

But anyone paying a modicum of attention would think otherwise. While Obama’s climate plan seeks to make minor strides in the face of a broken Congress, Xi’s call for stricter carbon controls and state-sponsored renewable energy production will continue to come in second to China’s priority for economic growth.

The mechanisms for traditional top-down governance seem to be broken when it comes to climate issues. To use a sports analogy – like losing teams these two coaches continue to come up with creative cheers, grand plays and strategies to push their sides to victory only to face defeat, yet again. What is missing is the central government’s ability to tap into the real bread-winners and activists, its individual players – the cities and municipalities. Cities often have a much more dynamic decision making structure and can more rapidly make changes that impact millions of people. Their impact on the global climate far outweighs their rural counterparts. According to a UN report, while only occupying two percent of land, the world’s cities are responsible for up to 70 per cent of harmful greenhouse gases. This statistic is worth mulling over. Just as the two nations that represent the world’s largest energy consumers should take ownership in addressing climate change, so should their cities.

Despite competing at the international level on everything from GDP levels to the number of medals at the Olympic games, one thing both China and the U.S. seem to agree on is that climate change must be tackled. But for all the rhetoric about climate cooperation, China and the U.S. might tackle problems best as soft competitors. Why not tap into the U.S. sentiment of wanting to win out over China and Chinese sentiment of wanting to out modernize America? Why not utilize the central government’s convening power to create a bit of healthy competition in the form of cities competing with one another to go the farthest in becoming low carbon?

Low carbon initiatives already exist among some cities. While still in its infant stages, nearly three years ago China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) began a project to construct eight low carbon cities - Tianjin, Chongqing, Shenzhen, Xiamen, Hangzhou, Nanchang, Guiyang and Baoding. In 2009, over 1,000 U.S. mayors, tired of Congress’ inability to sign a climate change bill, took matters into their own hands by signing a pact to meet Kyoto protocol targets.

These same cities could emerge as new competitors. Perhaps the pairings could originally be based off of the existing program – sister cities. All of the eight Chinese low carbon initiative cities have at least one or two U.S. sister cities. Many of the sister cities have aspects in common such as relative population density, resource base, or economic dependencies. The upside to utilizing this system is that the city leadership understands the importance of exchange and knowledge sharing in an effort to achieve sustainable growth.

The competition itself could take several forms with prize categories that include issues such as the most low carbon public transport options, most forest coverage, most robust energy efficient management systems for industrial sectors or highest drop in carbon intensity.

Most importantly this kind of competition would likely play out well amongst the American and Chinese publics. It is an initiative that would generate attention and support both because of the potentially irreversible consequences of inaction and for the fear of losing leadership on this crucial issue. For example, many within the U.S. would be outraged to learn that a March study found China to be outpacing the U.S. in low carbon competitiveness. The index, developed by the Climate Institute and General Electric, ranks G20 countries in forecasting their ability to compete best in a world that restricts greenhouse gas emissions. The study suggested that China moved up from 7th to 3rd place while the U.S. moved down to 11th. Losing in any type of competition does not sit well with the American psyche. If both countries are serious about tackling climate change and being a leader in this issue, they need to get their act together before it is too late.

Of course, this is not to suggest that this process will be straightforward. A myriad of issues suggest that any type of competition of this nature will not be easy. Strong business interests, most notably the coal industry, within each country continue to make the argument that it is economically best to keep the status quo. Additionally, both countries have varying types of emissions targets, differing policy instruments, completely different methodologies for measuring emissions, and diverse accounting systems.

But there are tools for getting cities and businesses on the same page in terms of their measurements and standards. For example, the Program of Energy and Climate Economics (PECE) at the Renmin University of China developed a toolkit for low carbon city planning that includes city level greenhouse gas accounting, a long term low-carbon scenario analysis, and a roadmap for developing technologies to help meet certain targets.

Solutions exist and differing systems need not act as a barrier. While states seem to be having a difficult time establishing baseline measurement tools, cities are well placed to push the envelope towards lowering carbon emissions. Two cities working under a common framework will, at minimum, move the dial locally while worldwide standards get hammered out in the coming years.

While leaders in Washington and Beijing continue to act as cheerleaders, let us ask them to play a game where real action takes place. Maybe, just maybe, then we will be able to have some winners starting at the local level. Forcing this type of exercise would not be worth it if the stakes were not so high. In case you have not been paying attention, this is not your typical game, where your team can always make a comeback next season. This time it could be all or nothing for millions around the world. Right now, we are all losing.

Iris Ferguson is a GG2022 fellow, former U.S. Department of Commerce official and graduate of Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not reflect those of her affiliations. This column is part of a series from the GG2022 fellows.

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