THE BLOG
08/14/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Changing Climate of Diplomacy

From the start of the global economic crisis, it has become clear that a new world order has emerged. While the world is increasingly interconnected, it is specifically the US-China relationship that will determine how and if our leaders can meet the major global challenges of the 21st century. The first major test of this new world order will occur this fall in Copenhagen, where the follow-up to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol at the UN's global climate change conference will be negotiated. In Denmark, there will be only one meaningful question asked: will the US and China -- the world's biggest developed and developing countries, the biggest consumers of energy, and the largest producers of greenhouse-gas emissions -- come together to make meaningful concessions to reduce their environmental footprints?

Today, American and Chinese leadership and innovation are essential to shaping a new global model that will simultaneously advance the environmental agenda and increase global prosperity. The future of international peace, stability and development depends to a large degree on building a comprehensive US-China strategic partnership and avoiding a future of US-China strategic misunderstanding and tensions. To this end, US-China cooperation on climate change can serve as the vital first step to ushering in the new age of multilateral collaboration on shared strategic goals. Any treaty signed in Copenhagen will be rendered ineffectual without the mutual support and leadership of these two immense international powers.

Fortunately, the interdependence that has been created between theUnited States and China has created a win-win, lose-lose strategic relationship between the two countries. They each have a vested interest in the other's successes and are threatened by its failures.

The two countries are now faced with an historic opportunity to catalyze a global economic and environmental transformation to low-carbon sustainable economic development on a global scale. The aims of this transformation include, but are not limited to, carbon emissions reductions, transition to clean energy systems, averting a catastrophic global climate crisis, and sustainable use of the world's resources. Coupled with the most severe global economic crisis since the Great Depression, a surge in innovative economic forces is needed now more than ever. A tide of creativity, resourcefulness, ingenuity and determination of millions of people and businesses is waiting to be unleashed to spirit the world's transition to a low-carbon, sustainable economy.

So far, leadership in both countries appear ready to tackle the challenge domestically, but have yet to fully take advantage of the new opportunities for cooperation. In response to the economic crisis, the leaders of US and China have introduced so-called green stimuli to their respective economies. By doing so, both are showing resolve to seize the opportunity granted by the harsh economic conditions to retool domestic infrastructure to incorporate the use of technologies and energies that will be sustainable in the long-run.

US president Barack Obama has stated that mitigating climate change will be a high priority for his administration, which is committed to 80% reductions of greenhouse-gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2050. His stimulus plan includes commitment of massive resources for building a new clean energy infrastructure, greater efforts to enhance energy efficiency, and new steps to move away from dependence on fossil fuels.

Chinese leaders have a similar perspective on the climate-change threat and the need for a fundamental policy transition. Accordingly, they are devoting stimulus resources to energy efficiency and green technologies, among other efforts to build a low-carbon energy infrastructure. China has committed to producing 15% of their nation's energy needs from solar, hydro, wind and other carbon-neutral means by 2020. Officials even think that through such green infrastructure investments (which themselves would provide much-needed jobs) they could easily outstrip this goal and hit 20% within the decade. The nations of the European Union have set a similar bar at 20% by 2020. The US is attempting to pass a 25% renewable energies standard by the year 2025, but this is struggling in legislative processes.

However, looking beyond these domestic goals, successful US-China cooperation on energy and climate security will be necessary to substantially enhance prospects for a new international climate agreement as well as bolstering political support in each country for climate change mitigation policies. Perhaps more importantly, it will also build mutual trust between the United States and China, strengthen the US-China partnership for tackling a wide range of common strategic challenges in the twenty-first century, and allow for greater multilateral cooperation amongst the most powerful and most polluting nations of the world.

A comprehensive U.S.-China strategic partnership is both possible and essential to confront the great issues of our time. Solidifying such a collaborative bilateral relationship will facilitate and even catalyze greater cooperation among China, the United States, Japan, Europe and the other powers of the developed and developing world. It is time to take the US-China relationship to the next stage beyond China as a "responsible stakeholder" to the US and China as working together as "collaborative responsible stakeholders."

It is essential that both the Obama administration and the Chinese leadership engage at the highest levels to begin a new program of significantly scaled-up cooperation on energy and climate change as soon as possible. Such a bilateral partnership would be a much-needed force for strategic stability and global cooperation. As the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue is set to kick off this July, there would be no better issue on which to compromise than to save the very Earth we walk on.

Banning Garrett is Director of the Asia Programs at the Atlantic Council, a position he also held from 2003-2007. From February 2008 to February 2009 he was Director of the Initiative for U.S.-China Cooperation on Energy and Climate for the Center for U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society, during which time he helped draft and supervised production of the Asia Society's highly influential January 2009 report Common Challenge, Collaborative Response: A Roadmap for US-China Cooperation on Energy and Climate Change.