The ‘clean tech race’ and China-US climate talks

Commitments on emissions tend to get most of the attention in US-China climate change talks. But the development of their own clean tech industries is a big domestic concern for both countries, and if the past few days are anything to go by, they are further apart on this than ever.

The debate over the US falling behind in the clean tech ‘race’ is gaining momentum, fuelled by two prominent opeds on the subject this week. GE’s Jeff Immelt and John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers wrote in the Washington Post:

We are clearly not in the lead today. That position is held by China, which understands the importance of controlling its energy future. China’s commitment to developing clean energy technologies and markets is breathtaking.

Jim Rogers of Duke Energy began his oped in the Wall Street Journal with similar sentiments before urging the US to make the most of its lead in nuclear power.

Meanwhile on the China front there was small cause for optimism when Yu Qingtai, China’s special representative on climate change, yesterday signalled a more positive tone on reaching a deal at Copenhagen. Much of his speech exhorted China’s efforts to reduce its emissions so far, and repeated the view that developed countries should bear a bigger share of the cost of reducing global emissions. But the FT notes notes that China has softened its tone on how much developed countries should cut their own emissions before expecting contribution from poorer countries. In May it wanted a 40 per cent cut by 2020 from 1990 levels, but this number has not been mentioned since then.

However that might turn out, it seems that China is not wavering from its stance that it wants support in the form of access to clean-tech intellectual property from richer countries. From Yu’s speech:

“When China’s emissions will peak depends on our development stage, our GDP per capita, our resources structure and technology level.”

“It will also depend on the dynamics of international co-operation, especially technology transfer.”

But the growing complaints in the US over the country’s position in the ‘clean tech race’ are unlikely to go away soon. Joseph Stanislaw, energy economist, co-founder of CERA, and now a consultant with Deloitte, was another to voice concern about the US losing the clean energy race in a speech yesterday to the Oxford Energy Institute. But he also noted that the House of Representatives in June overwhelmingly voted in favour of a bill to protect intellectual property rights in any climate change negotiations.

And this could increasingly put the world’s biggest two greenhouse gas emitters at odds on intellectual property, even while they move towards agreement on the more prominent issue of net emissions reductions (in the case of the US) and curbs (in the case of China).

Related links:

China’s position on climate change at the Copenhagen conference – National Development and Reform Commission of China
China sees progress on climate accord, but resists and emissions ceiling (New York Times, 05/08/09)
In climate change talks between China and the west, nothing is simple (FT Energy Source, 02/06/09)

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