US builds China partnership over climate

2013-07-19 10:00
Environment. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

Environment. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

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Washington - US President Barack Obama has stumbled on an unusual partner in his quest to combat climate change: China.

The world's two biggest emitters of heat-trapping greenhouse gases are finding common cause in efforts to reduce global warming, co-operation the US says could clear the way for other developing, heavily polluting nations like India and Brazil to get on board, too.

Sceptics question whether either nation will follow through on lofty aspirations. Still, the budding agreements are allowing the two rivals to present a positive front at a time when tensions are running high over espionage, alleged cyber theft and American fugitive Edward Snowden.

Last week, top American and Chinese officials announced new joint initiatives, including cutting emissions from heavy-duty vehicles and upping energy efficiency of buildings, transport and industry.

They also agreed to team up on large-scale experiments with "carbon capture" - technology to isolate carbon dioxide from power plant emissions so it can be safely stored. Lack of commercially viable technology has been a major barrier to making plants cleaner in the US and abroad.

Strategic document

A month earlier, Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in the California desert for a summit aimed at forging closer ties. The sole concrete achievement was a deal to phase out hydrofluorocarbons, a potent greenhouse gas used in refrigerators and air conditioners.

"This is a priority for the president and for me," Vice President Joe Biden said on Thursday during a speech on Asian relations, specifically mentioning the accord with China. "The impact of climate change also has an impact as growth as well as security."

The world's most populous country, China has long been perceived globally as an unabashed polluter but has started to change its tone.

In 2007 China's notoriously pragmatic and economy-focused government called, in a national strategic document, for an "ecological civilisation", reflecting a move toward balancing environmental protection with development.

China's environmental imperatives are clear: Suffocating smog in Beijing, rising sea levels and polluted water and soil that can stifle development.

Already vying with the US as the world's largest manufacturer, China looks at policies that constrain industry growth differently than other, largely agricultural developing nations in Africa or Asia.

Beijing may also see renewable and clean energy as a growing global fad and want to ensure they're not left out. In 2010, China's government spent more than $30bn subsidising its solar panel industry, US energy officials said. And the US shale natural gas boom is attracting major Chinese investment, too.

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