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Diverse Approaches to Clean Energy Cooperation With China
April 26, 2023

Diverse Approaches to Clean Energy Cooperation With China

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U.S.-China Nexus Podcast

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The challenge of climate change requires global thinking about innovation, particularly in the clean energy sector. 

Joanna Lewis joins the U.S.-China Nexus to discuss her new book, Cooperating for the Climate: Learning from International Partnerships in China's Clean Energy Sector (2023), which examines different modes of international clean energy cooperation with China. Even though current U.S.-China relations remain tense, Lewis argues that countries, including the United States, have decades of experience designing clean energy cooperation mechanisms in ways that optimize both political and technological benefit. “We can be strategic,” Lewis says. “We know how to leverage complementarities and manage risks.”

Eleanor M. Albert: Today, we have a special episode of the U.S.-China Nexus with Georgetown's very own Joanna Lewis.

Joanna is Provost’s Distinguished Associate Professor of Energy and Environment and director of the Science, Technology and International Affairs Program (STIA) at Georgetown University's Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. Here at Georgetown, she runs an active, externally funded research program and lead several dialogues and joint study groups facilitating U.S.-China climate change engagement. She’s also a faculty affiliate in the China Energy Group at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and has two decades of experience working on international climate and clean energy policy with a focus on China. 

Joanna, welcome to the show. You have a new book out called Cooperating for the Climate: Learning from International Partnerships in China's Clean Energy Sector (2023).  What was the motivation for writing it and for putting this together?

Joanna Lewis: First, thanks for having me back on the podcast. This book is something I've been thinking about for well over a decade now; I'm almost embarrassed to admit that, but it's been a long time coming. I started to think about this issue of how countries cooperate with China on climate change and clean energy really back in 2007 when we were in the throes of a presidential campaign in the United States, and it was becoming clear that there was more that the United States specifically could be doing with China on climate change.

I ended up working on a project with several think tanks, and NGOs, and experts, many of whom ended up going into the [Obama] administration to put together a roadmap for U.S.-China cooperation on clean energy and climate. That was the first time I was starting to think about where are the
gaps and what have we done together and really learn myself what that cooperation had looked like over the preceding decades.

I was particularly interested in thinking about this because I had been involved in a lot of cooperation activities myself starting back when I was a graduate student at UC Berkeley. I worked at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory with a group there called the China Energy Group that has been working on clean energy cooperation with China since the late '80s. I was able to observe firsthand a lot of the technical cooperation that was happening in the energy space, and just by being a participant in a lot of that cooperation, which was government sanctioned but in the research community, was able to see how cooperation worked and what didn't work, and how these partnerships were built, and what some of the challenges could be to doing real energy cooperation. That was the framing and the history. The book itself came a few years later when I decided to take this more comparative perspective, looking not just at the U.S., but what other countries were doing with China in this space.

Eleanor M. Albert: In the book, you actually focus on this diversity in this comparative approach about how states respond to collaborating with China. Could you lay out what some of the factors are that shape a state's motivations and rationales for cooperation with China? And then do these factors end up having implications for what the actual cooperation looks like?

Joanna Lewis: When I'm looking at different cooperation mechanisms or agreements across countries with China, I put forth this framework to try to explain how countries set up these partnerships and how they vary across a range of political, or diplomatic, economic, and technological factors. So you have these different dimensions that inform how states shape their engagement.

Different countries have different priorities when it comes to engaging with China in the climate and energy area. Some, it's much more focused on diplomatic outcomes, more high-level dialogues, focused on the diplomatic and the political.

Whereas other countries, it's much more rooted in real technological innovation and partnerships on developing new technologies, or deploying technologies, or the things that go along with that.

Then, of course, different countries have different economic relationships with China, different geopolitical relationships, and all that gets managed within the context of how countries go about setting these partnerships up.

In the book, I talk about partnerships with very large countries or blocs, like the EU, the U.S., but then also very small countries that are really partnering above their geopolitical weight, like Denmark for example, because of its unique positioning in the climate change and clean energy space. That's how we see this diversity play out along these various spectrums across countries.

Eleanor M. Albert: I want to unpack some of the mechanisms that countries have in trying to negotiate on clean energy cooperation, and you've mentioned some is through high-level diplomatic engagement, memoranda of understanding (MOUs) as being big announcements. What are the tools? And then your book covers a large span of time, and how well have some of these MOUs held up? Are they meeting expectations?

Joanna Lewis: In the book, I chronicle and developed this data set [of] bilateral agreements across different countries and across clean energy technologies with China. I come up with three ways to think about different mechanisms of cooperation that pretty much every agreement falls into one of these three categories (occasionally, more than one) but this would be an emphasis on dialogue and information sharing.

A lot of these agreements, at the highest level, it's to set up some kind of conversation, whether it's a formal dialogue, or a conference, or a workshop, with a goal of some general information sharing, whereas other agreements are much more focused on the technical aspects of these partnerships. So, I code that in the book as talking about collaborative research development or demonstration. The focus of the agreement itself is on doing joint research or doing a joint demonstration project of a specific technology, for example. The third area that we see frequently is this focus on commercial opportunities.

In the book, I'm only looking at agreements that are facilitated by governments, by central governments. But of course, many of the partners who are involved in these bilateral partnerships are not just governments, they are private sector entities, companies, but then also the research community, and sometimes non-governmental organizations, depending on the structure. We see different mechanisms depending on who are the actors that are involved, and then again going back to what are the actual outcomes on that diplomatic versus technological spectrum.

Then this question of, do these MOUs really hold up, and how do we assess what happens there? This is something I went back and forth a lot on how the best way to address this. In the full data set I've pulled together for this project, we're looking at well over 400 bilateral agreements over three decades. I ultimately decided I couldn't do justice to really evaluating every single one in terms of what was the outcome.

So you signed this agreement, maybe it signed at the presidential level, maybe it signed at the ministry level or maybe below, but usually one of those two, and the question is what happens after that? What I decided to do, rather than trying to assess the outcome of every single one of these 400 plus agreements, is I really took a deep dive on three case studies that were signature efforts of three different countries that are from very different parts of the world, different geopolitical situation, but very similar model of cooperation.

I look in the book at these three different clean energy research centers, one that was developed with China, by the United States, one by Denmark, and one by Brazil. It's interesting because they all were based on a high-level MOU between the governments, they all had a goal of, in some way, forging ahead on clean energy research and development, but they all took really different models of how they got there and had different outcomes. What I do in the book is really try to measure what did these partnerships rooted in these MOUs, what did they achieve?

The way that we measure that is also just a complicated issue, because different governments have different metrics they use to track these things. Some don't track them at all. I found the best tracking is done anytime something gets a lot of high-level attention; there's a lot more need for governments to have transparency around what are these agreements actually achieving.

So the CERC [U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center] in the United States, for example, which went on through the entire Obama administration plus the Trump administrationso relatively long duration, and went through multiple administrations, multiple funding cycles and appropriations. It was actually the subject of a GEO [Global Environment Outlook] review; it was a subject of multiple [U.S.] congressional hearings because it was a rather high-profile initiative with China. A lot of people wanted to know how is this money being spent? What was it delivering? And when that happens, there's more data available.

But it still was a lot of work to scrape together. Ok, if the goal of this was joint innovation, which is one of the original stated goals, were there any patents filed? When you are actually looking at a partnership like this one, the CERC involved hundreds of researchers from China and the United States over many years. It's actually quite complex to look at all the projects that were taking place under this so-called umbrella of the CERC and then what did they actually deliver. So you look at a variety of metrics, everything, from IP [intellectual property] generated, which could be in the form of patents or other IP mechanisms, but also things like students trained, workshops held, to try to look at different ways of understanding knowledge sharing and how to measure that.

Eleanor M. Albert: It's incredible to think about the breadth of what is covered in this database, and I want to look a little bit more under the hood of the areas of technology focus in clean energy cooperation, which is one of the things that you're focusing on in terms of your coding. Are there trend lines in terms of China's macro level cooperation with certain countries? Did it change in terms of the technology focus that it was most interested in?  

Joanna Lewis: Yes. So there's a few things I looked at along those lines. I was particularly interested in understanding, first, which countries were leading cooperation in certain clean energy technology areas or climate areas. Let's take a country like Denmark, for example, which is really a leader in renewable energy, and then you can dive down and see what are they focusing on compared to Canada, or Japan, or Australia. And try to understand these national and regional differences in technology focus. Then you have to account for the fact that some countries are just larger and have more agreements.

Overall, you see clean energy cooperation happening across a wide variety of technology areas, but on the whole, there's been a lot of work with China specifically on renewable energy and energy efficiency, energy conservation. Those are two categories I look at because those have been really large areas of cooperation with China. The third big one, well, is climate change writ large and that includes climate science research, climate modeling, mostly the technical sides of climate cooperation.

Those are the largest that we find in terms of technology cooperation areas. But of course, there is somewhat of a time element there. This is an area where technologies are constantly evolving and there's innovation happening, learning happening. You see, certainly, interest on China's part in engaging with countries on technologies as they are emerging.

For example, China has expressed a lot of interest in collaborations related to carbon capture and storage, carbon capture utilization related to coal-fired power plants and other industrial facilities. But there's only a handful of countries in the world that really have experience with that technology, namely, Australia, Canada to some extent, United States, and then the UK, and a few other European countries. That ends up shaping the way that these partnerships are designed and how the technological focus is selected.

But then, looming in the background, there's this concern among some countries, and really the companies within those countries that are always a little more nervous about collaboration on what we call pre-commercial technologies or earlier stage technologies, where there's still a lot of innovation happening, a lot of potential IP out there, a lot of economic competition. You really do see more hesitancy, I think, in cooperation in a lot of these areas where we know there's going to be this battle for the clean energy race.

Of course, right now, a lot of discussion in the U.S. and here in Washington about electric vehicles, and batteries, with the recent IRA [Inflation Reduction Act] legislation, which is really about encouraging United States manufacturing in this area specifically. You don't actually see a whole lot of cooperation in that space. That's to be expected considering the competitiveness concerns that do persist and have been in place for the last decade plus in those technology areas.

Another thing that I think is interesting to look at is how countries come in and out of the dominant role in engaging with China in this space.

The United States is a large country, does a lot of work with China, signs a lot of agreements across all different agencies that are involved in working with China; it's not just one aspect of the government. But you definitely see a shift with administrations. We saw a record number of climate energy agreements signed with China during the Obama administration because that was really a flagship initiative of that administration. Then as we transitioned into the Trump administration, the number of new agreements signed dropped to zero, not surprisingly, because climate change was just not a priority, and engagement with China became less and less of a priority over time. But there's not always this partisan divide. We saw quite a lot of cooperation in this area during the Bush administration, as well as some earlier Republican administrations. But climate has become more and more politicized in the United States.

Then, we also see, as the U.S. moves in and out of first place, you have other countries that then move in. Japan is an interesting one, for example. In the 1990s, Japan was extremely active in working with China in the energy environmental space in terms of technology cooperation because Japan had really been a pioneer in many of these areas, particularly in the energy efficiency space. But as these geopolitical tensions between Japan and China worsened, you see that spillover into cooperation in the climate energy space, and so fewer and fewer agreements between those two countries.

Eleanor M. Albert: I'm curious about Brazil in this for a couple of reasons, not just because the Amazon is there. When we think about climate, and climate change, and energy, it's a big area of focus, but also because it ends up being a little bit different as a large player in the Global South. Lula [da Silva], when he was first leading, was a big proponent of the BRICS [Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa], and having much more of the South-South cooperation. Brazil is one of your case studies. How does this play out in terms of the type and modes of cooperation between China and Brazil compared to the case of the United States and then Denmark?

Joanna Lewis: I was very excited to do this case study on Brazil and to find this initiative. I was actually at a conference almost 10 years ago on China and clean energy innovation, and met one of the officials from Brazil who was leading the design of this clean energy research center that the Brazilian government had stood up in Beijing within Tsinghua University. [I] got to know him and got to learn firsthand about what was happening on the Brazilian side about why they saw this as really important. It really was quite unique compared to what I would hear consistently from the United States and from many of the European countries.

First of all, Brazil wasn't doing a whole lot of overseas science and technology engagement of this scale. They really saw Chinaat this time, this is the early/mid-2000s when this is being set upas this important frontier [that] would help build relationships between Brazil and China. Each of them saw each other, as you say, as emerging economies that had similar geopolitical interests in some of these areas, and you mentioned the BRICS, and we now have BASIC [Brazil, South Africa, India, and China] and others. They don't always agree on everything, but they came together as these partners.

The way that partnership was designed did look really quite different from the U.S. or the European ones, in that it really was about leveraging South-South technology transfer. This is something I'm very interested in from an academic perspective. I've studied for a long time what role China is playing now that they have been a successful recipient of technology transfer from the West, what role they're now playing in transferring technology to other developing countries that are less sophisticated than China in the renewable energy technology space specifically. I've done some work looking at the solar technology they're transferring to Africa and places.

I was really interested to understand what was happening with this Brazil case. You actually have this fascinating situation where you have these Chinese researchers that have advanced biofuel technology that they want to commercialize, but they know that China's not the right place to do that. Brazil, of course, is unique globally in the biofuel area, having been extremely successful, it's really a unique case of how they have been able to develop this technology really broadly and become a global leader.

So you actually saw this innovation happen in China, and then they brought that technology to Brazil to demonstrate it, to see how it would work, and take measurements. You had Chinese researchers going and working side-by-side with Brazilian researchers, building these biofuel plants there, retrofitting some Brazilian plants. Then ultimately, they were able to patent this technology to commercialize it and they were able to deploy it in both countries based off of that experience in Brazil.

We hear about this again in the more theoretical literature of the role that China could play in demonstrating technologies. We see a lot of examples of U.S. companies and European companies that have technologies and they go demonstrate them in China because that's where the markets are, and you can get a lot of government support often for large-scale demonstration projects that would be very difficult to build in the United States, less regulatory hurdles, and a whole variety of things. But this was going a step further; this was actually Chinese technology being demonstrated in Brazil, and again, about finding this unique environment where that technology could thrive, bring it to commercial scale, and then be able to deploy that in China, Brazil, and potentially other countries as well.

It's exciting because I'm interested in how we think about the globalization of innovation. If your number one concern, which mine is, is how we are going to solve climate change, how we are going to deploy these technologies at the pace that everyone says we need to to make sure we don't grow global missions over a certain threshold to avoid the most dangerous impacts of climate change, you really need to think strategically about how you deploy these technologies as quickly as possible, how you drive costs down.

That does require thinking globally about how do you piece together the role these different countries can play? Maybe you have really smart people in one country, and they come up with this innovation, but they're not in the right environment to bring it to commercial scale, so they go somewhere else, and then go somewhere else, to eventually get it to be more widely available.

But we really are in this world where that was looking increasingly possible a few years ago. Now, I think the tide is turning on that as you see this more anti-integration and this push to decouple from these global supply chains, and Chinese supply chains in particular. There are good reasons for that, for sure, but when you think about deploying technologies in particular in the clean energy space, it's potentially problematic because you see these successes of how we've been able to leverage these different national innovation systems to get these technologies deployed in a way that they may not otherwise have ever come to the market.

Eleanor M. Albert: That's really fascinating, and I want to lean in a little bit to this competition in innovation. Of course, it's in other sectors as well, but as it relates to climate change and clean energy, the relationship between China and the U.S., and increasingly with European countries, is basically closing a door to some degree in this environment. But that also, in some ways, provides perhaps an entry point for what does the role of Global South countries then become? Because you'll end up having two versions of aspects of clean technology research and designs trying to be deployed in different parts of the world, and that, in some ways, creates a competitive market that could potentially be a positive, because you would have both being tested out.

You mentioned a little bit about your own research interests… I think about a continent like Africa, which really needs a lot of this technology because they are facing much more immediate circumstances as a result of climate change issues. What kind of motivations exist for the Global South in terms of thinking about the modes of cooperation that they engage in with China and perhaps other dominant players in this space?

Joanna Lewis: Competition is good, to be clear. When you're trying to push innovation, this happens with competition, it's incentivized by competition. We saw examples of this, for example, in my first book; I looked at the development of the wind power industry in China.

In the early days, China looked like it was going to be this country that had all this potential for wind power development but there was very little happening. But the policy incentives began to be written, and wind turbine manufacturers from all over the world flocked to China. They were working side-by-side, building demonstration projects. It was this fascinating time where you had a Danish turbine next to an American turbine, next to a Spanish turbine, next to an Indian turbine, next to a Chinese turbine.

And a lot of information sharing. It was becoming clear who had the dominant technology and how might that play out. But that didn't last because when China started to have this motivation to really build its own technology, not be reliant on foreign countries for this technology, and this became a strategic industry for China’s science and technology development, which they call out very explicitly in government plans. They basically shifted this protectionism model, which we see very frequently, and this green industrial policy as we call it, where, really, you're designing these policies to build domestic industry and trying to shut out competitors to protect your own industry and allow it to thrive. And we now see a lot of countries moving in this direction, including the United States.

It makes sense: countries want to not just be reliant on imported technology, particularly in the clean energy space. There's a lot of attraction to green jobs and all the economic benefits that these industries could potentially provide domestically, but not if you're just shipping it from another country, although that’s not entirely true because a lot of the jobs have to be local if you’re installing this technology, that has to happen where the project is being built.

But what we see happening is, as more and more countries want to enter these clean energy technology industries, and they look at what China’s done. Other developing countries and throughout the Global South look at how China did what they did, and they say, “Okay, we want to do this, too.” But China was somewhat unique in terms of its sheer manufacturing capabilities. There are not a lot of countries in Sub-Saharan Africa that can replicate the manufacturing scale that China did in solar, even though there’s a lot of need for solar and excellent solar resources in much of Sub-Saharan Africa.

You see this situation where supply chain lines get drawn and there’s certain aspects of the supply chain that need this scale manufacturing to drive down costs. But then there’s other aspects that are, for example, the extractive industries, the mining industries, for the inputs to these technologies. A lot of that does go to countries in Africa and other developing countries, but that’s not necessarily the part of the supply chain that has the highest value added and brings the most economic benefit. Of course, in many cases, it brings environmental destruction related to the impacts of mining.

So you have this complicated situation where if we start to think about, “Okay, we don’t want to be reliant on, let’s say, China, for our solar panels or our wind turbines, who else could step in?” I have a project right now looking at this, specifically, modeling out, “Okay, what does our demand look like to meet global climate targets?” And then you say, “Well, China is over 90% in multiple key supply chain areas of the clean energy future, and so who else could scale this up?” And there’s not a lot of places you could actually do this. You’ve already got some manufacturing moving outside of China to Southeast Asia and a few other parts of Northeast Asia. Then again, you have a situation where, often, it's still Chinese-owned and they're just moving the geography, often to get around trade-related sanctions, which is a constantly changing regime as well.

I think that there's going to be a lot of interesting decisions made in the next few years about how do we really think seriously about meeting these global climate goals and what role does this green industrial policy play in all this. Are we going to take this more protectionist approach and end up with potentially increasing the cost of these technologies because you may have duplication and redundancy in supply chains? But if that is what's politically needed, then you have to think about how you balance these two things, and make sure that you're doing it in a way that, again, is not for no reason.

I really call for just being very strategic about this. This goes back to the book and the lessons about cooperation. Right now in Washington, this is a complicated time to talk about cooperation with China. The U.S.-China relationship is not in a great place right now, but my argument is not that we should ignore that. That's a reality that we are in, but that we can be strategic about this. And we actually know how, we have decades of experience with designing these bilateral cooperation mechanisms in a way that optimizes political and technological benefit. We know how to leverage complementarities and manage risks.

That’s what I try to tease out in the book specific examples of how we've done that, whether it's managing intellectual property rights or whatever the concern might be, you can design that in as long as you don't ignore it. You have to hit the issue head on, and then you actually are not dismissing the potential benefits, including benefits to U.S. companies, of engaging in the Chinese market and often even with the Chinese government.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the position of Georgetown University.


The U.S.-China Nexus is created, produced, and edited by me, Eleanor M. Albert. Our music is from Universal Production Music. Special thanks to Shimeng Tong, Tuoya Wulan, and Amy Vander Vliet. For more initiative programming, videos, and links to events, visit our website at And don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or your preferred podcast platform.