Politics

China and the world turn to California for climate change expertise

China’s top negotiator at the United Nations summit on climate change practically gushed as he described his country’s relationship with California.

During a speech Monday, Xie Zhenhua described Gov. Jerry Brown as an “old friend” whose administration has provided green wisdom from across the Pacific.

“For that,” he said to Brown, “I give tribute to you.”

It was a ceremonial reminder of the unglamorous work occurring behind the scenes between China and California, and a glimpse of how the state wants to play a key role in stemming global warming.

Although California lacks a formal seat at the negotiating table while countries seek an international accord, the state has something many places do not — a track record of ambitious environmental programs that could be imitated around the world.

Politicians have spent years trying to position California as a trailblazer on climate change, even writing into law that the state should take a “global leadership role.” That effort is taking on increased urgency as countries pledge new limits on greenhouse gas emissions and explore concrete steps to meet their targets.

“The world is committed, but they don’t know how. California has figured out how,” Christiana Figueres, the top United Nations official on the climate talks, said in a Sacramento speech earlier this year.

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Brown traced California’s record back to the 1960s, when the federal government allowed California to enact regulations stricter than national standards. Today, he said, the state has “more skilled people working on air pollution than the EPA itself in Washington.”

California officials have rolled out the welcome mat in the last two years for representatives from more than three dozen countries — including China, Kazakhstan, France and Abu Dhabi — in an attempt to spread the seeds of the state’s policies for fighting global warming.

And with a slew of agreements with foreign leaders, Brown and administration officials have turned California’s Air Resources Board and Environmental Protection Agency into de facto diplomatic organizations.

Each of them has staff members assigned to network with other governments and nonprofit organizations. State officials have been dispatched overseas to train their counterparts or conduct seminars. There’s a fluent Mandarin speaker on payroll.

“California basically has a foreign policy,” said David Victor, a UC San Diego political science professor.

No country has been more interested than China, where pollution often casts an impenetrable haze across entire cities and forces citizens to stay inside or wear masks. When Chinese officials visit Sacramento to meet with state environmental leaders, one thing especially stands out as they walk the tree-lined streets.

“They’re really impressed by how clean the air is here,” said Michael Benjamin, who runs a state emissions laboratory.

The focus of these conversations is often California’s cap-and-trade program, a complex market mechanism for reducing emissions by requiring companies to have permits for releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Companies that emit too much would need to buy additional permits, and companies that are more efficient can sell their excess allowances.

“It is a model that is being considered in many parts of the world,” said Robert Stavins, director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program. “That’s the way that California is likely to be influential.”

Thirteen Chinese delegations visited the Air Resources Board in 2014; an additional 23 have come this year, and three more are scheduled to arrive before New Year’s Eve. Some included provincial officials, others are from the central government office that is planning a national cap-and-trade program.

Occasionally the Chinese representatives will visit Lake Tahoe or tour the Capitol. But usually, state officials said, they hunker down in conference rooms and laboratories to learn about state programs and review fact sheets printed in Mandarin.

The conversations could make paint peel. “The acronyms are killers,” said Rajinder Sahota, who runs the cap-and-trade program.

The questions from the Chinese representatives are often highly technical, but being able to answer them is a source of pride for Mary Nichols, chair of the Air Resources Board.

“That’s what we do,” she said. “That’s our power.”

Of course, China doesn’t always follow California’s recommendations. The state spent years collecting emissions data before launching its cap-and-trade program, but Chinese officials have moved much more rapidly.

“They’re on a crash program,” Nichols said.

One thing that often surprises Chinese visitors is relative transparency of California’s process.

“They’re amazed we have these open meetings that anyone can come and talk at,” said Margaret Minnick, the board’s international liaison. “They ask if there’s some way people get qualified to speak, and we say no, it’s a public meeting, anyone can speak.”

President Obama and Xi Jinping have been ramping up their own national cooperation on climate change, signing a joint agreement last year to lower carbon emissions.

But Yunshi Wang, director of the China Center for Energy and Transportation at UC Davis, said California still has a unique role to play because of the sometimes confrontational tone coming from Washington.

“California is regarded as friendly, environmentally conscious and economically advanced,” he said.

Some of the most intense work has focused on vehicle emissions. Beijing officials have twice taken three-month-long trips to California, including stops in Los Angeles, where smog choked the city years ago.

Beijing suffers from intense air pollution, issuing its first-ever “red alert” this week that forced school closures and barred half the city's cars from the roads.

Because of Los Angeles’ battles with smog, “we can learn from their experiences,” said Ming Dengli, who handles international initiatives at Beijing’s environmental office.

For state officials, all the attention can add to their heavy workload. But having other countries looking over their shoulders can be beneficial, Sahota said.

“It’s really encouraging when you’re slogging away at your desk,” she said. “It can be motivational.”

Times staff writer Julie Makinen and Nicole Liu in The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

Twitter: @chrismegerian

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