Clean Energy Cooperation on the Eve of the Us-China Summit

In conjunction with President Obama’s trip to China, I had the great privilege of speaking today at a high-level Clean Energy Roundtable in Beijing with top government officials from the U.S. and China. Over 100 experts attended, including the heads of some of the world’s most successful clean energy technology companies, such as GE Energy, First Solar, Suntech, Duke Energy and BYD.  The heads of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC), China’s Ministry of Science and Technology (MoST), and China’s National Energy Administration (NEA) jointly hosted the meeting.  The aim was to break through the fog that had started to settle over the climate change negotiations in order to produce tangible, clean energy initiatives before the parties convene at Copenhagen next month.

U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu announced at the meeting that during President Obama’s visit to China, the U.S. and China will sign cooperative agreements on energy efficiency, renewable energy, electric cars and advanced coal technologies, and DOE and NEA will officially sign an agreement creating the “US- China Energy Cooperation Program”.

It’s hard to describe the excitement that filled the meeting room at China’s official state guesthouse, Daoyutai, where Nixon stayed in 1972 when he first opened US-China relations.  Among the many innovators in attendance were Dr. Wan Gang, China’s Minister of Science and Technology.  Minister Wan specialized in developing electric vehicles technology at Tongji University, where I first met him almost ten years ago, when NRDC partnered with Tongji to promote the development and commercialization of clean vehicles. The enthusiasm for cooperation on cutting-edge technologies and the synergies it creates reminds me of the regular meetings that took place between Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone, some of the world’s great innovators at the turn of the 20th Century, when the automobile was still an emerging technology in the United States. Now, a little more than 100 years later, world-class innovators from both the U.S. and China are coming together to work on 21st century low-carbon technologies that will address the most significant issues of our time.

One of the highlights of the meeting for me was when Gregory Kats of Good Energies, a leading global private investor in renewable energy and energy efficiency, talked about the untapped potential of energy efficiency, particularly in the building sector. As someone who has been working on energy efficiency issues in China for nearly fifteen years, I too have seen that improvements in energy efficiency are the fastest, cheapest and cleanest way to reduce emissions. According to Kats’ new study, U.S. green buildings on average use over 30% less energy at a cost far less than previously assumed. The cost premium is equal to only 2% and would be paid back in the energy savings of the building in the first four years after construction.

In order to win the race against climate change, we need to move fast on renewable energy and energy efficiency. The best way to do this is through public-private partnerships with key stakeholders from the business community, research institutes, academic organizations, state and provincial governments and NGOs, such as were present at today’s clean energy roundtable.

The U.S. and China are on the verge of important new agreements in global innovation and are already moving forward to mobilize the people that will implement them. I hope fifty years from now, this meeting will be remembered as an important benchmark in a concerted, global movement towards clean energy that helped to reverse the tide of climate change.

This post originally appeared on NRDC’s Switchboard blog