The gravity and immediacy of the global warming challenge is not lost on new U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. He made climate change a centerpiece of his first tour of Asia and cemented his pledge by the signing of a joint U.S.-China agreement that designated climate change a high priority for bilateral cooperation. Kerry’s leadership on climate change was further emphasized by the U.S.-China Climate Change Working Group, co-led by the State Department, which presented proposals for five new action initiatives to key officials during the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in July 2013.

Shin-pei Tsay
Shin-pei Tsay was a nonresident associate in the Energy and Climate Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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Bilateral collaboration is already under way in the form of extensive joint research on technology that can help reduce global carbon emissions. But a mere continuation of U.S.-China technological development is not enough. What is needed now extends beyond joint research to an understanding of how technologies operate in tandem with the realities of political systems, economic markets, and established infrastructure. U.S.-China cooperation on climate change must move from the laboratory to the real world.

Cities can be key places for the United States and China to work together in applying existing research. More than half of the world’s population lives in cities, a profound demographic shift. The activities of these urban dwellers, along with the energy, transportation, and other built infrastructures that support their lifestyle, are responsible for up to 70 percent of global emissions. By 2050, the UN estimates that over 70 percent of the growing global population will live in urban areas, with the majority of growth occurring in Asian cities with notoriously high carbon emissions. China alone will add an estimated 350 million people to its cities by 2032—more than the entire U.S. population today. This urban influx will result in a dramatic increase in energy use and, in turn, greenhouse gas emissions.

But cities not only produce dangerously high emissions levels—they can also provide a much-needed solution to the climate change problem. Intelligent policy initiatives that build cities’ financial, technical, and political capacities to reduce their carbon emissions have the power to keep global warming below the 2-degrees-Celsius threshold expected to bring about massive climate change. Implementing cooperative projects between the United States and China, the two largest carbon emitting nations, in specific sites that present similar challenges worldwide—cities—will result in the widespread mitigation of carbon emissions with significant impacts for climate change not just in these two countries but globally.

Launching Joint Technology in Urban Areas

The United States and China have been collaborating for years on climate change research. The U. S.-China Clean Energy Research Center (CERC), a $150 million research and development program established by U.S. President Barack Obama and then Chinese president Hu Jintao in 2009, has made several meaningful advancements in clean energy technology. Cities are the key to transforming this research and development into tangible, emission-reducing projects.

The built environment—buildings, construction, and other human-made structures as well as transportation and other infrastructures that support daily urban life—is responsible for nearly 60 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions that are not related to power generation. More than 17 percent of these emissions come from buildings, over 40 percent come from transportation, and the remainder comes from construction activities, based on 2011 figures from the International Energy Agency. Most of these emission sources are concentrated in cities, areas that inherently contain a high density of building structures and have high levels of transport use.

Since 2009, end-use sectors have been the focus of CERC research initiatives in the United States and China, with three specific aims: developing and implementing smart-grid technology; promoting building efficiency; and advancing sustainable transportation by accelerating and standardizing electric vehicle technologies.

Smart-grid technology, building efficiency, and low-carbon transportation were highlighted as three of the five new action initiatives presented at the Strategic and Economic Dialogue by the Climate Change Working Group. Each collaborative action aims to draw on the full expertise and experience of U.S. and Chinese government agencies to address key drivers of greenhouse gas emissions, including urbanization. Pilot programs based on CERC’s research in these areas can demonstrate the applications of technology that had previously only been tested in controlled or laboratory environments. A real-world setting allows for the creation of a feedback loop in which input from the practical application can further refine the technology and foster understanding about the regulation and governance required for widespread deployment. Implementing these initiatives in urban contexts can build on CERC’s existing robust research program to form the foundation of future sustainable cities.

Smart Grids

Both China and the United States have aging, outdated electrical grids and are interested in innovative new technologies for electrical transmission. Currently, the American grid consists of more than 9,200 electric generating units connected to more than 300,000 miles of transmission lines to accommodate rising power needs, most of which come from cities. China’s current electricity distribution system is based on technologies that move energy from coal-fired power plants to major cities and towns.

When demand outstrips supply in these systems—especially in China, where the grid is not computerized—blackouts leave millions in the dark. Such blackouts have more than doubled in the United States in the last decade. And aging grids are not only a risk to energy security; their inefficiency also causes unnecessary carbon emissions through wasteful energy loss and impedes large-scale deployment of renewable and low-carbon alternative energy sources.

By contrast, smart grids, computerized electrical grids embedded with information and communications technology, provide communities with both electrical stability and low-carbon emissions. Just by using smart grids, which contain direct digital mechanisms like computerized controls that allow for demand-side management, the United States could reduce its carbon emissions from electricity by 12 percent by 2030. Smart grids could also reduce global carbon emissions, 26 percent of which came from electricity and heat in 2004, by introducing larger shares of renewable energies like solar and wind that are not easily supported by non-smart infrastructure.

Ranking first and second in smart-grid investments, China and the United States, respectively, are takings steps to revolutionize their grids through national policies and funding. China intends to invest $43 billion into smart-grid development between 2011 and 2015. The concentrated nature of cities makes them an ideal environment for piloting smart-grid developments. Smart grids will help dampen the negative effects caused by new demand generated by rapidly growing urban populations. In China alone, emissions doubled between 2003 and 2010, although 2010 per person emissions were only 6.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide compared with America’s 16.9 metric tons per capita. Coupled with the massive urban migration set to take place in the country, China’s rising emissions will likely cause it to overtake the United States as the highest per capita emitter in the world by 2017. The result will be a dramatic increase in global carbon emissions. Smart grids can help guide this demographic transition along a low-carbon path.

With China and the United States encouraging smart-grid research at the national level, subnational opportunities to implement and evaluate these grids should be explored. Testing nationally funded CERC technologies through locally implemented pilot programs is one such prospect. A CERC research center at the University of California at Los Angeles, in partnership with Peking University and Fudan University, has recently been working on developing sensing and communication technologies for smart-grid and smart-city systems. A joint U.S.-China urban pilot program in newly designated eco-cities could provide meaningful data on and uncover innovative solutions to political, economic, and technical barriers that larger-scale smart-technology implementation may face.

Building Efficiency

Structures that use energy for ventilation, heating, cooling, and lighting must reach their energy-efficiency potential in order to complement the development of a smart grid and thus a low-carbon urban electricity infrastructure. In the United States, retrofitting commercial, residential, and industrial buildings for greater energy efficiency would reduce U.S. energy use by 30 percent and greenhouse gas emissions by 10 percent. And doing so would have economic as well climate benefits; a joint study by Deutsche Bank and the Rockefeller Foundation posits that energy efficiency retrofits for existing buildings could yield roughly $1 trillion in U.S. energy savings in a decade, more than three times the cost of implementing them, and provide 3.3 million cumulative years of employment for the American workforce.

In addition to retrofitting older infrastructure, the carbon emissions related to energy efficient new construction can also be significantly reduced. According to the International Panel on Climate Change, the building sector offers more low-cost opportunities to reduce emissions across the world by 2030 than other sectors. Globally, roughly 30 percent of all new-buildings-related carbon emissions can be avoided by 2020 by constructing the most efficient and geographically sensitive residential and commercial buildings. This practice will be especially important given China’s urban influx.

Under CERC’s leadership, experts from both countries have been working to implement a five-year Building Energy Efficiency Joint Work Plan since 2009. The research, mainly pursued at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California and the Center of Science and Technology of Construction in Beijing, has focused on developing monitoring and simulation models, insulation systems, building equipment, and building integration as well as on making efficiency technologies economically competitive.

As the joint work plan comes to a close next year, a U.S.-China pilot program could be implemented to study the technologies’ emissions potentials and economic outcomes in cities with varying climate geographies and different population sizes and demographics. Cities in the program could test the new equipment and systems and couple the results with low-carbon building regulations and other policy mechanisms that promote more efficient built infrastructure. If these measures were deployed in tandem with smart grids in these pilot cities, efficient building systems—like heating or air conditioning units—would use a higher share of renewable energies, leading to further emissions reductions.

Sustainable Transportation and Electric Vehicles

Transportation networks, the veins of urban infrastructure, as well as the vehicles that they support, are the third area of CERC research. The majority of transportation emissions, 95 percent of which are black carbon (soot) and carbon dioxide, are from personal or commercial road transportation—light vehicles and medium-to-heavy trucks that run on petroleum-based fuels. In the United States, the transportation sector accounts for about 70 percent of national oil consumption, and it contributed 33 percent of total U.S. carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion in 2011. In 2008, the United States had just over 250 million registered vehicles; by 2050, China will far exceed that number and urban private car ownership alone will reach 356 million vehicles. This enormous growth in vehicles has the potential to surge China’s carbon emissions and make staying within the 2-degrees-Celsius global warming limit impossible.
According to a study conducted by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, however, with acceleration in the research, development, and deployment of new vehicle technologies, up to 70 percent of China’s projected 356-million-vehicle fleet could be electric.

Because auto-centric planning dominates many U.S. and Chinese cities, vehicles will likely continue to proliferate in these countries. Advancing clean transportation research in electric vehicles and vehicle efficiency can help alleviate the effects of greenhouse gas emissions from the hundreds of millions of vehicles on Chinese and American roadways. With the introduction of low-carbon fuels, like solar and wind energy, into smart grids, plug-in electric vehicles have the potential to reduce transport carbon emissions between 57 and 81.2 percent, depending on the sources of electricity. In addition, consumers can drive these vehicles for roughly one-third to one-fourth the cost of driving gasoline-powered vehicles.

The CERC-Clean Vehicles Consortium provides the research groundwork for pilot programs of urban electric vehicle networks to test their efficiency and economic viability. The center’s research agenda in this area, carried out at the University of Michigan and Tsinghua University, has focused on understanding vehicle-grid interactions; advancing vehicle equipment, including electrification, batteries, and clean combustion; and developing a technology and policy road map for the eventual implementation of electric vehicles. It has identified specific urban sites as pilots.

Although electric vehicle technology is rapidly maturing, especially in the areas of battery longevity and cost, major developments in commercialization and supporting infrastructure implementation—like charging stations—are needed to make electric vehicles competitive with the internal combustion engine. While this research is continuing, new U.S.-China eco-cities could pilot small-scale electric vehicle implementation to further understand the political, economic, and integration obstacles that full deployment may face in the years to come.

Using Cities to Secure a Safer Future

Kerry’s focus on climate change and the U.S.-China Climate Change Working Group’s report to the Strategic and Economic Dialogue have the potential to compel the world’s two largest greenhouse gas emitters to work together to achieve large, bilateral emissions reductions. For the most effective results, their partnership must transfer current areas of collaborative research and development on reductive technologies to jointly implemented projects in U.S. and Chinese cities.

Executing pilot projects in cities, where concentrated energy distribution systems, carbon-intensive mobility patterns, and a dense built environment of commercial and residential buildings combine to produce the majority of global emissions, could reduce the effects of climate change dramatically. Perhaps most importantly, the working group’s concentration on smart grids, building efficiency, and sustainable transportation has the power to promote pilot programs that deploy and test the new technologies China and the United States have developed under CERC. Focusing their climate change cooperation on cities will allow Washington and Beijing to take the next step toward widespread adoption of these measures, which will reduce carbon emissions not only in these two countries but also around the world.