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China, US Look to Energy Efficiency 


The United States and China are both prioritizing the issue of climate change. They are looking to energy efficiency as a primary means to reduce carbon emissions and as an area for new jobs and economic growth.

"It begins with energy," said President Obama in his late February address to Congress.

President Obama promised government investment in three areas that he called "absolutely critical" to America's economic future. The first one on his list was energy.

However, President Obama went on to praise China, and not the United States, for making the greatest strides towards the goal of energy efficiency.

"We know the country that harnesses the power of clean, renewable energy will lead the 21st century. And, yet, it is China that has launched the largest effort in history to make their economy energy efficient," he said.

Mr. Obama's emphasis on tackling climate change through energy efficiency represents a relatively new imperative in both Chinese and American environmental policies.

The United States and China together represent one-quarter of the world's population and consume approximately one-third of its energy.

Some scientists say the two countries also contribute the most to climate change. They are the top two emitters of greenhouse gases, producing one half of the world's carbon-dioxide emissions from fossil fuel use.

Many analysts and even Chinese officials, themselves, believe China has surpassed the United States as the world's biggest emitter of carbon dioxide. But President Obama was correct in saying China is making unprecedented strides toward energy efficiency. The Chinese government has set a goal of reducing energy consumption per unit of gross domestic product by 20 percent in the five years from 2006 to 2010. China also aims to have renewable fuels account for ten percent of China's total energy consumption by 2010 and 15 percent by 2020.

China's efforts have already produced some results. Energy intensity - the amount of energy it takes to produce a unit of GDP - fell 4.21 percent in 2008. That is an improvement on the previous year's 3.66 percent decline.

Liu Qi, a vice administrator at China's National Energy Administration, says China will continue to push energy conservation to reduce emissions and fight climate change.

Liu goes as far to say the Chinese government will attach equal importance to both energy conservation and development.

Yet China still has a long way to go. About 70 percent of China's power comes from coal-fired plants and, in the past five years, China built the equivalent of America's entire coal-generated power system. Although many of these plants are built to be relatively clean, urban migration and increased living standards mean China's energy needs will continue to expand.

Chen Shihai from China's National Energy Administration says the global economic downturn makes further reducing energy consumption per GDP very difficult.

Chen says China must reduce energy consumption, but also, at the same time, maintain a high growth rate for industries like iron and cement.

When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi during her visit to Beijing last month, she also framed the push for energy efficiency in economic terms.

Clinton told reporters she spoke with Foreign Minister Yang about renewable energy, the capture and storage of carbon dioxide from coal plants and energy efficiency in buildings.

"These technologies are essential, both to spur sustainable economic growth in our countries and to contain the increasingly urgent problem of global climate change," Clinton said.

Clinton also said senior officials on both sides will hold regular consultations in the lead-up to climate talks scheduled for December in Copenhagen.

Recent reports by organizations like the Asia Society and Brookings Institute all agree that, without cooperation between China and the United States, efforts to combat climate change are likely to stumble.

This has already been true in the past. For example, China refuses to cap its greenhouse gas output, pointing to the fact that rich industrialized countries already benefit from high-emissions stages of development. Former President George W. Bush refused to sign the Kyoto protocol in part because it did not include emissions caps for China.

Orville Schell, the director of the Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations, says any climate agreement that does not include both countries will fail.

"Either we- the Chinese and Americans- choose to ignore this issue, in which case there won't be a solution to climate change and we'll all suffer the consequences, not just in China and the U.S., but around the world," Schell said.

Cooperative efforts in the field of energy efficiency have already begun. An "eco-partnership" was signed between the tornado-ravaged American city, Greensburg, Kansas, and Mianzhu in China's Sichuan Province, which was destroyed by last May's earthquake. The two cities will cooperate to implement energy-efficient design in their rebuilding.

President Obama mentioned Greensburg when addressing Congress, last month. And, he made sure to emphasize his belief that energy efficiency and economic development go hand in hand.

"Think about Greensburg - Greensburg, Kansas, a town that was completely destroyed by a tornado, but is being rebuilt by its residents as a global example of how clean energy can power an entire community, how it can bring jobs and businesses to a place where piles of bricks and rubble once lay," he said.

Both the United States and China are promising big spending on economic stimulus packages in the coming years. Their commitment to addressing climate change will in part be tested by how much money they are willing to allocate to the development, implementation and monitoring of energy-efficient programs.

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