With U.S. climate policy stalled, Asian countries like China are edging ahead on the path toward low-carbon development
For most of its existence, the global climate debate has been characterized by gridlock between developed and developing countries about whose actions matter most. Developed countries such as the United States carry a historical responsibility: they have developed at the expense of massive greenhouse gas emissions, some of which are still active in the atmosphere, and they boast far higher emissions than developing countries on a per-capita basis. On the other hand, most of the world’s future greenhouse gas increases will take place in developing countries.
The reality is that substantive action will be needed in both the developed and developing worlds if we are to avoid a major environmental catastrophe—and cooperation between the two will be critical.
There is no doubt that U.S.-Asian cooperation is a key component of setting Earth on a low-carbon development path. Asia houses more than 60 percent of the global population and is home to the two largest carbon-emitting countries in the developing world: China, which recently passed the United States as the world’s largest greenhouse gas producer, and India. But cooperation is a two-way street.
Last Thursday, the hope that the United States would finally adopt a comprehensive climate and energy policy was crushed as the Kerry-Lieberman American Power Act was withdrawn from the Senate agenda. With the country seemingly unwilling to make concrete and binding commitments on economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions, the prospects for low-carbon cooperation with Asia seem increasingly dim. However, a closer look at the continent’s regional institutions reveals some promising opportunities for climate progress in the developing world.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) released a report last week examining Asia’s response to numerous global challenges, including climate change and the role that regional policy architecture might play in meeting future emissions targets. The report also highlights the possible role of the United States in facilitating inter-regional collaboration to help Asian institutions reach their full potential. Well-known regional institutions include the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC), the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), and the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate.
The report describes the current political framework in Asia as a hodge-podge of these institutions, with limited membership crossover among South, Southeast, and East Asian countries. But it also highlights several key advantages of this patchwork policy structure—in particular the ability of regional organizations to develop networks of cooperation. Because countries in a close-knit region share similar problems and goals, leaders and officials from neighboring countries are more likely to form close working relationships that can facilitate a constructive dialogue.
Yet the capacity for climate mitigation policy through Asia’s regional institutions is limited by two factors. The first is the abstract and long-term nature of the climate issue, which makes it difficult for regional institutions that have limited authority over national policy to set clear targets and goals. Another, more palpable, challenge is the pervasive lack of trust between the Asian countries and multinational organizations. ASEAN member countries, for example, maintain an extremely strong sense of autonomy and are hesitant to make concessions when determining domestic policy.
The CSIS report recommends that the United States take further steps to strengthen the dialogue with Asia’s major regional organizations in order to overcome these barriers. In the climate and energy arena, it suggests that the U.S. expand its existing efforts within the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate (APP). One way to do this would be for the U.S. to integrate key national institutions such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy into the existing inter-regional forum. By incorporating specialized agencies into the discussion, the United States might be able to help APP members adopt more concrete emissions-reduction plans.
The conclusion from the CSIS report is the same message that often pervades international climate discussions: developing (in this case, Asian) countries need a jolt from the United States to reach their full potential for climate change mitigation. But the report was written before the Kerry-Lieberman bill was scrapped. The inability of the U.S. to move domestically will make the country an even more unlikely facilitator and less credible supporter of ambitious climate policy in Asia.
So perhaps we need to instead ask: who in Asia will show the U.S. the way? Already, many Asian countries appear to be surpassing the United States in energy-efficiency initiatives, renewable energy targets, and green investment. China’s investment and financing for clean energy rose to $34.6 billion in 2009, nearly double the $18.6 billion spent by the United States. And a few weeks ago, the United Nations released a report hailing India as the world’s fifth largest producer of wind energy and solar hot water.
Although increased dialogue between the United States and Asian regional institutions might help ease tensions in the climate debate, it won’t be enough without substantial action by both sides. And in this instance, it looks the United States will have to do its homework. Political and industry leaders in both China and India clearly see clean energy development as a mechanism for leapfrogging the West and creating more jobs and wealth. If U.S. climate and energy policies continue to flat-line, we may soon find that the pressure for climate action is in fact coming from across the Pacific.