Clearing the air with China

As President Obama pursues green infrastructure projects and other programs aimed at fighting climate change, he is eventually going to have to confront an unpleasant truth: None of it will matter unless the developing world, particularly China, does the same. With China having passed the U.S. as the country with the highest greenhouse gas emissions in the world, and with its per-capita emissions rising four to six times faster than ours, any carbon reductions here will be more than canceled out by increases there.

A smart way of addressing that problem was presented last week in a report by a multi- disciplinary team of experts, who proposed that Obama convene a summit with Chinese President Hu Jintao to outline a plan of action against global warming and create high-level councils in both countries to develop ways to implement it. What makes this project, a joint effort of the Asia Society and the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, different from the usual think-tank fodder is that it was co-chaired by Steven Chu, who as the new secretary of Energy presumably has Obama’s ear when it comes to climate policy.

The idea of cooperating more closely with China on such matters isn’t new. Former Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson began a series of high-level talks on economic issues with China in 2006, and last year he convened a session on energy and the environment that established various goals and set up task forces to address them. But climate change wasn’t really Paulson’s priority -- the session took place in June, when high oil prices were the top economic and political issue, and it was aimed mainly at putting downward pressure on oil demand and prices.

International summits and task forces seldom lead to much concrete progress (Paulson’s initiative went pretty much nowhere), but there’s reason to think a U.S.-China partnership on climate change could be different. Each country tends to blame the other for the problem; China points out that the U.S. is historically the world’s biggest contributor to greenhouse gas concentrations and says it should be free to industrialize just as the U.S. was, and the U.S. says imposing carbon controls here would give China a competitive economic advantage. Working together, the two countries could improve economic prospects for both while disadvantaging neither. The global economic crisis, meanwhile, presents an opportunity for both countries to invest in projects that cut carbon and create jobs.

In the next year, there will be much talk of a successor to the Kyoto Protocol global climate agreement, but a bilateral effort by the U.S. and China is arguably more important. Obama should see that it happens.