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Secretary Chu speaks at Tsinghua: long on technological solutions, short on policy

This post is also available in: Chinese (Simplified)

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Josh Bushinsky, who is with us at NRDC Beijing for a few months from the University of Chicago Law School, attended the talk by Secretary Chu at Tsinghua last week.  We post his summary of the meeting here.  His conclusion is that there was ample discussion about technological approaches, but insufficient focus on the policy steps both countries need to take to get us on the right track on climate.  We agree.  Events are moving quickly though.  Positive moves, such as strong moves on the US ACES legislation or clarification from China on future carbon intensity targets, will change the negotiating dynamic and push us closer to an effective agreement in Copenhagen.  We hope both countries will make every effort to make these moves in advance of Copenhagen and lay a stronger basis for productive negotiations.  - eds.

U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu (who visited China last week with Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke) gave a speech at Tsinghua University last Wednesday that highlighted the progress that has been made in understanding the challenge of climate change and the tremendous steps that countries will need to take to meet the challenge, both politically and technologically.  Secretary Chu first described the impacts that climate change has already had and will have in the future, focusing on declining snowpack and water resources in California, his home state, and China, his parents’ homeland.  He also pointed to projections that predict heat-related deaths in Chicago increasing ten-fold, heat waves in China increasing in frequency from every 20 years to every 2 to 3 years, and increased flooding in the Yangtze Delta region and Florida.  He noted that the U.S. and China are together responsible for 42% of the anthropogenic carbon dioxide currently in the atmosphere, and that while the developed world created the problem, the developing world could make climate change “much, much worse.”  “Science has shown that we have altered the destiny of our planet,” he said. “Is this the legacy that we want to leave to our children and grand children?”

Secretary Chu used the second half of his presentation to describe the technological solutions to climate change.  He described Norman Borlaug’s efforts to increase wheat yields and Haber and Bosch’s chemical fertilizer process as examples of how humans have solved previous crises through the application of science.  He highlighted the importance of energy efficiency, noting that stricter energy efficiency standards for refrigerators save more energy annually than existing U.S. renewable capacity.  He also touched on the need for advances in solar power, biofuels and battery technology, as well as the simple but effective solution of painting roofs white to reduce summer cooling loads.

While Secretary Chu described a few potential areas for collaboration between the U.S. and China – including developing software to model building energy performance and improving carbon capture and storage technology – he generally avoided discussing the policy reforms needed to address climate change, other than briefly lauding the Waxman-Markey bill in the U.S.  Later in the day, he and Secretary Locke announced that the US and China would each contribute $15 million to start a joint research center on clean energy in each country.  While this was a welcome sign, it is clear that technological advances initiatives alone will not bring about the changes needed to aggressively reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. and China.  The right policies are required to price carbon, encourage efficiency, and deploy low-carbon technologies at scale.  Secretary Chu’s speech, coming at a crucial moment for cooperation between the U.S. and China, and only a few months before the international climate negotiations in Copenhagen, offered little evidence that either country had taken any significant steps forward in bridging their negotiating positions, or in offering possible solutions to the crucial issues of technology transfer and financing of greenhouse gas reductions in the developing world.  One can only hope that more progress is being made behind closed doors.

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