On almost any major issue, from climate change and urbanization to international trade and peace and security, how the US and China work together (or don’t) will shape our global future. To tackle these challenges, the University of Chicago and China-US Exchange Foundation partnered to bring renowned experts from China and the US together through a series of annual forums. The first forum, held at the University on May 19th and hosted by the Energy Policy Institute at Chicago (EPIC) and Paulson Institute, focused on the critical challenge of climate change.
Madame Fu Ying, the chairperson of the Foreign Affairs Committee for the 12th National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China, was a featured guest at the forum. Fu emphasized that both China and the US have shown their leadership in confronting climate change, with a landmark joint climate announcement last year outlining their respective climate goals for 2025 and beyond. “We all know without effective and coordinated action, we’ll all be paying the price of global warming,” Fu said at the event.
Fu expressed hope that the displayed leadership from China and the US would go a long way in fostering collaboration when international negotiators meet in Paris later this year for the next round of UN climate talks. But a Paris agreement would just be the beginning of a long road to realize those commitments, as was expressed by a panel of academics focused on the human toll of environment and climate challenges, and the path forward.
Elisabeth Moyer, an associate professor of atmospheric science at the University of Chicago’s Department of Geophysical Sciences, was the first to present on the panel. She explained that if China’s energy consumption continues to grow without finding alternatives to coal – which accounts for 80 percent of its total electricity – the impact on climate will be dramatic, causing rising seas and ultimately, devastation for China’s low-lying coastal cities. “We aren’t going to conserve our way out of this,” Moyer said. “We are going to have to find more sources of energy.”
Aside from emitting carbon emissions that further global warming, China’s coal use has also created a major air pollution problem for the country. There to discuss this challenge was air pollution expert Wang Litao, a professor at the Hebei University of Engineering in China. Wang mapped out China’s aggressive targets for reducing air pollution (PM2 fine particle emissions)—25 percent for the Beijing/Tianjin/Hebei region, 20 percent for the greater Shanghai region and 15 percent for the Guangdong Pearl River Delta region by 2017. There is some progress already, she noted. Handan (Wang’s home town), which is one of the most polluted cities in China, saw a 17.5 percent reduction in PM2 emissions in 2014, largely because the government shut down a number of inefficient, small coal-fired plants. “I’m optimistic, because of the very strict actions taken by local and central government,” Wang said.
The government is acting to cut air pollution largely because of significant public outcry following several studies over the last few years that have linked the pollution with significant health impacts. One of those studies was written by University of Chicago economist, Michael Greenstone, the director of the Energy Policy Institute at Chicago. According to Greenstone’s research, people living North of the Huai River, where the government subsidizes coal use for home heating, live 5 years fewer than people to the South. “The price of energy should reflect the damage it causes in terms of health and climate,” Greenstone said.
But how can China, and other rapidly-developing countries, achieve this goal? Zou Ji, one of China’s leading climate experts and the deputy director general of the National Center for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation, said that China is working on many fronts, from developing new technologies to pushing for low-carbon urbanization, as some 300 million rural residents will move to the cities in the next few decades. But in the meantime, Zou said, China can’t shut down its coal-fired power plants, which for now are crucial for economic growth. He added that “China has the most advanced coal-fired technology,” with emissions, he said, comparable to that of natural gas. “We need to design the right strategy,” he said. “A change of value judgment will help China.” In other words, China somehow has to drive toward less individual energy consumption, not more.
The morning session closed out with a wide-ranging conversation about China between Greenstone and Hank Paulson, chairman of the Paulson Institute and former Secretary of the US Treasury, who noted that the Paulson Institute is working on sustainable urbanization and climate change and air quality projects on the ground in China. “I believe that the US-China relationship is the most important in the world,” said Paulson. “We have plenty of differences, but a lot of shared interests, such as climate, and it’s harder to make progress on the areas where we have shared interests if we are not cooperating with each other.” Paulson called the recent US-China climate agreement “remarkable,” adding that “the biggest environmental and economic risk facing the world is climate change. The leaders in China are very committed to this.”
In the afternoon, the forum continued the themes introduced by Paulson, taking a look at the broader relationship between China and the US. It featured a conversation moderated by Steve Edwards, the executive director of the University’s Institute of Politics, with Madame Fu Ying. During that conversation, Fu echoed Paulson’s sentiments and reiterated her hope that other countries would follow the good example China and the US have set in confronting climate change.