03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Copenhagen: China's Chance to Lead; Where is the United States?

In 1979, when I moved to Beijing to help set up one of my then-employer's first foreign law firm offices, landline communication in China was virtually nonexistent. In many parts of China, to talk with a friend, you rode a bike or a bus to their home. To place an order with a local business, you walked there. Thirty years later, China is a country buzzing, beeping and singing with cell phones. More than 700 million phones are in use. What happened? China saw that cell phones were the way of the future, and that the landline was a vestige of the past. Rather than catching up with the rest of the world, by putting a landline in every home, they stepped ahead of it by putting a cell phone in every hand.

Today, China is poised to step ahead once again. This time, the issue is climate change. In recent years, China has made great strides in renewable and nuclear energy. While it has retrofitted many of its coal fired plants in the past few years, it is also in a position to bypass high intensity carbon emitting technology as it builds and rebuilds its steel, cement, and other industries. Its rapid economic growth and centralized government gives it that ability.

Much like in the 1990s when China found a way to modernize in many areas, China's current leadership knows that it must leapfrog from smokestacks to the next generation of clean energy sources. In smog-laced cities like Beijing and Shenzhen, Chinese citizens live and breathe the consequences of rapid industrialization and reliance on coal as its primary energy source. The Chinese leadership is committed to change that. Today, China spends $9 billion a month on clean energy. Wind farms now dot the countryside. And a Shenzhen firm is leading the world in lithium-ion battery technology, and primed to make the electric car a reality.

All of this positions China well for Copenhagen -- which is good for the rest of the world. What we know about global climate change agreements is that without the largest carbon emitter on board (which China now is), any accord will be feeble. Which brings us to the United States, the second largest emitter and the largest emitter on a per capita basis. Like China, the United States must be on board for a climate agreement to be effective. Unlike China, however, right now the United States lacks the commitment needed to take on the challenge.

The problem is not at the top. On the contrary, President Obama has made coordination with China a centerpiece of his foreign policy, and climate change is a focal point of that strategy. On his recent trip to China, President Obama joined President Hu Jintao in issuing a joint statement where no less than 14 of the 46 paragraphs were devoted to the topic of climate change. Rather, the obstacle is the complexity of a political system in which states and other interests can sometimes trump national, or global, interests.

Under our Constitution, a treaty like the one that might emerge from Copenhagen is not a matter that the executive branch decides. The Administration sets the course, but President Obama will need legislation from the House and Senate and ratification of a treaty by the Senate for the United States to sign off on any terms that might be set in Copenhagen and at successor conferences.

Congressional approval is thorny. While states like Washington and Oregon already have low per capita carbon emissions (in part because of their plentiful hydropower) and will therefore incur relatively low costs to comply, states in the Rust Belt -- beholden to coal and gas -- will have to make costly changes or pay a high price for their carbon emissions. This is what makes Obama's road beyond Copenhagen a rough one and one of the factors that might ultimately position China to make more rapid strides in reducing carbon emissions than we can.

China's doesn't face this situation. And because it doesn't perhaps it should take this opportunity to lead in an even more dramatic way. Rather than offering the 45% reduction in carbon intensity by 2020 it has already offered, China should offer more. If nothing more, perhaps this would provide the United States with the wakeup call it needs to step beyond our provincial interests, and do what is right for the world.

Stephen Orlins is president of the National Committee on United States-China Relations.