On May 26, Secretary of State Antony Blinken outlined the Biden administration’s approach to China, in a speech with the slogan “invest, align, compete.” But can the two countries maintain their collaboration on climate issues? U.S. climate envoy John F. Kerry shared a stage in Davos last week with Xie Zhenhua, China’s lead climate negotiator. And in April, California signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment.
To get a sense of the prospects for U.S.-China climate cooperation, I consulted two leading experts, Joanna Lewis of Georgetown University and Michael Davidson of the University of California at San Diego. Their insights, lightly edited for length and style, follow:
Q: Given the overall tensions in the U.S.-China relationship, where might we see bilateral cooperation on climate policy?
Lewis: Policymakers face the all-important challenge of changing near-term emissions trajectories. China is still by far the largest national emitter — and continues to build out a coal-dominated energy system, even as it leads the world in renewable-energy deployment. Working with China to build both technical expertise and political will can result in more-ambitious decarbonization programs. Section II of the new MOU with California lays out the specifics, including focused efforts on CO2 and non-CO2 greenhouse gases and short-lived climate forcers like refrigerants, as well as activities to strengthen China’s institutions and governance structures.
Q: Could this collaboration potentially move the needle at the national level?
Lewis: Climate is one of a few areas where the U.S. is engaging cooperatively with China right now at the national level. However, that engagement has been downscaled dramatically from where it was during the Obama administration. State-level government agencies along with researchers at California-based universities have a unique pathway to work with China — and they’re somewhat insulated from the broader politics and tensions within the bilateral relationship.
Q: Why California? How connected are its efforts to China’s climate policies?
Davidson: California is unambiguously a climate leader within the U.S. and globally. Two-thirds of California’s electricity comes from low-carbon sources and a third from wind and solar alone. At one point in May, more than 100 percent of California’s electricity came from renewable energy. By contrast, nationwide, U.S. electricity is around 40 percent low-carbon and just 13 percent wind and solar.
And California accounts for more than one-third of the country’s electric-vehicle market. Decades of progressive state policies — from lightbulbs to fuel economy standards — have helped the “California effect” push the U.S. beyond the federal government’s median climate aspirations. China relies heavily on coal, making its grid dirtier than the U.S. electricity grid — but California shares similarities with China’s coastal provinces, in particular. California depends on imports for around a third of its electricity, comparable to Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Guangdong. This adds specific challenges when trying to transition to low-carbon sources. These areas have also historically pushed beyond central mandates in supporting low-carbon development, helping to bring China along in the process.
Q: Legislators in Washington show little interest in cooperation with China. What’s driving the collaboration from California?
Davidson: The MOU signed by California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) renews a previous MOU signed by Gov. Jerry Brown (D) in 2018 and builds on earlier cooperation between California and Chinese provinces. Thus, this cooperation crosses administrations and has been resilient even when federal climate efforts stall. In D.C., there are now two camps with respect to China: one crystallized by the U.S.-China Joint Glasgow Declaration that renews cooperation between the two countries on important near- and long-term climate actions; and another animated by trade, security and other tensions in the relationship. The two sides used to be able to compartmentalize environmental cooperation, but that appears to have broken down. It may now be up to California to demonstrate how to work with China to continue to make progress on climate change.
Q: What role do MOUs like this one play in U.S.-China climate cooperation?
Lewis: It’s not standard for a U.S. state to sign an MOU with China’s central government, rather than a provincial government, to be sure. But California has long been involved in U.S.-China climate cooperation — and was one of the few U.S. government entities to continue these efforts during the Trump years. And China sees California as a global climate leader, with some of the most advanced climate policies globally.
Q: How does this state-level MOU differ from other MOUs?
Lewis: In general, California’s work with China has focused more on technical issues related to clean-energy deployment as well as carbon market design. California has unique experience with climate and clean-energy policies and is home to top universities in the climate and energy space, along with national labs with long-standing collaborations with China. As a result, there’s more substance behind this new MOU than we see with other subnational partnerships.
Since leaving office, Brown has spent much of his time on U.S.-China climate collaboration and founded the California-China Climate Institute at U.C. Berkeley in 2019. This MOU designates the new institute, a nongovernmental organization, as the secretariat and primary center of coordination for California-China climate cooperation. The Chinese counterpart is based in the national-level Ministry of Ecology and Environment’s Foreign Environmental Cooperation Center. The arrangement highlights the unique relationship between Beijing and the former governor and his team.
Q: How does this MOU build on current energy and environmental exchange programs?
Davidson: California has had robust government-to-government engagement with China on environmental issues going back two decades, and other exchanges for even longer. As Chinese officials drafted environmental policies — from air pollution laws to emissions trading — they consulted not only with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency experts but also state partners at the California Air Resources Board and other organizations. California’s nonprofit and philanthropic community has also actively engaged with China on these issues.
Academic exchanges have proliferated through individual collaborations as well as institutional partnerships — and the new California-China Climate Institute will broaden the engagement. The MOU hopes to stimulate further policy and academic exchanges on a wide range of climate and environment issues, with a particular focus on carbon neutrality. It’s a goal California hopes to reach in 2045, with China aiming for 2060.
Jeremy Wallace (@jerometenk) is an associate professor of government at Cornell University, where his research focuses on Chinese politics, authoritarianism and ideology. He is the author of “Cities and Stability: Urbanization, Redistribution, and Regime Survival in China” (Oxford University Press, 2014).