U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who will make her first visit to China in just a few weeks, will likely set a new tone for U.S. foreign relations towards the country. Among other issues, she’s expected to discuss climate change, an issue that should be dealt with by the two countries focusing on their similarities rather than their differences.
Unable to agree on each other’s role in addressing climate change, the talks between the world’s two largest greenhouse gas emitters have remained in gridlock since the United States excused itself from the Kyoto Protocol in 2001. To ease into a new era of policy making, both countries should focus on popular initiatives that could still significantly reduce emissions, such as shared efforts to develop electric vehicles, green buildings and carbon sequestration projects, as devised in a recent Brookings Institution report.
“Climate change evokes philosophical disagreements, whereas clean energy evokes economic opportunities,” said the report’s co-author David Sandalow, who served as associate director for the global environment in former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s Council on Environmental Quality. Rather than grapple with the most controversial issues in the climate change debate – trade competition, coal use and emission targets – a focus on mutually beneficial, large-scale projects would “capture the public’s imagination” for further emission reductions, said Sandalow.
The two countries could also strengthen pre-existing local partnerships that exchange technology and expertise in a range of climate-related industries. For example, Denver, Colo. and the Chinese city of Chongqing have joined forces to develop electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles. These partnerships currently suffer from “information barriers” and a lack of funding, the report said. Zhou Wenzhong, Chinese ambassador to the United States, said “China has done a lot, but of course it’s not enough. Our most urgent issue is to limit poverty and develop the economy for one-fifth of the world’s people.”
Coal-mining efforts have recently been shifting from China’s northern Shanxi province to an even more vulnerable ecosystem: the grasslands of Inner Mongolia. Many worry that if this area becomes the next big provider of energy and chemical products, large amounts of its natural resources will be destroyed beyond the point of restoration, as seen in Shanxi. It must be emphasized that no amount of money can replace the soil carried off by sandstorms.
To break out of the vicious circle of using fossil-fuel energy, China must shift its reliance to clean energy sources. Rural communities have the means to contribute to this transformation by developing their own energy, which would reduce their toll on their immediate environment and decrease their collective greenhouse gas emissions. Many wealthy Chinese farmers are already using energy-hungry appliances such as air conditioners, refrigerators and microwave ovens, as well as coal for heating and cooking. Yet, they typically ignore the traditional bioenergy sources at their doorsteps – like straw – by simply burning them off in the fields.
So what if the millions of villages in China were mobilized? For one simple and repeatable solution, look at the data collected for the experiment entitled “Using straw as livestock fodder to promote circular energy use in rural areas” by the Institute of Botany at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The experiment was aimed at making full use of the straw that farmers discard, and was carried out in the village of Jiangjia in the Shandong Province.
Mobilizing farmers to use readily accessible, traditional bioenergy sources like straw may go a long way toward helping China reduce its carbon footprint. The straw fodder can be fed to cows, thus turning straw into dung. The dung could then be converted into methane gas for energy and organic fertilizer, which could replace 50 percent of chemical fertilizer use. Energy for heating and cooking would come entirely from methane gas, replacing coal, natural gas and electric ovens.
This improvement would make the villagers self-sufficient in energy, with a small surplus that could be sold to urban areas. Using methane as an energy source has allowed the researchers to persuade the county agricultural authorities to install methane generators in over 120 households. Each household produces an average of 1.3 cubic meters of methane per day. Using methane for cooking saves 339 kilograms of coal annually, reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by a little over one ton. The entire village saves 41.6 tons of coal, reducing emissions by 133 tons. International carbon prices put the cost of one ton of CO2 emissions at U.S. $200. Using these calculations, this project has earned 244,000 yuan (U.S. $35,882).
This is such an interesting report. Chinese policies should encourage rural farmers to use the energy sources naturally available rather than force rural locations to compete with cities and industry for fossil fuels. The government will not only be closer to its goals of reinvigorating its villages, but China also will save energy, reduce emissions and increase food production in the process.
China has 3.2 million villages that are home to over 800 million people. If similar methane projects were undertaken in each one, 853 million tons of CO2 emissions would be avoided every year (current annual emissions are 7 billion tons annually). If one takes into consideration the 50 percent reduction in use of chemical fertilizer and the carbon returned to the fields via organic fertilizer, the emission reductions are even larger.
The United States and China combined contribute more than 40 percent of the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. “Neither side is doing enough,” said Kenneth Lieberthal, a co-author of the Brookings report who served as senior director for Asia on President Clinton’s National Security Council.
“Each of us plays a major role in the politics of this issue in either country, and none of us are very sensitive to that.”
Let’s make this an era of Chinese and American collaboration and ensure that Bush-style silent stagnation becomes a thing of the past.
Ben Eckold is a business senior, the president of the Empower Poly Coalition and a Mustang Daily columnist.