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Joanna Lewis
Joanna Lewis
June 28, 2022

The State of U.S.-China Climate Cooperation and the Urgency of Ambitious Energy Policies with Joanna Lewis

Podcast Series:

U.S.-China Nexus Podcast

In 2020, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged that China would reach carbon neutrality by 2060.

China has also become a global leader in renewable energy in a bid to not only reach ambitious climate targets, but also to diversify its energy sources. Georgetown’s Joanna Lewis shares with the U.S.-China Nexus how bilateral cooperation on climate change has changed over time and emphasizes that even with tensions between Beijing and Washington, valuable exchanges can, and need to, still take place at the sub-national level and through track two facilitated dialogues. As China faces increasing domestic economic pressures, Lewis also discusses some of the contradictions in China’s ambitious climate and energy goals given the importance of China’s coal industry.

Eleanor M. Albert: Today, our guest is Joanna Lewis. You are 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. You run an active, externally funded research program and lead several dialogues and joint study groups facilitating U.S.-China climate change engagement. You’re also a faculty affiliate in the China Energy Group at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Joanna, it's great to have you on the show. Welcome!

Joanna Lewis: Thanks for having me.

Eleanor M. Albert: I want to kick it off with asking you about what your path was into studying the intersection of science, climate, and technology. And then how did China factor in?

Joanna Lewis: I really came to working in China by working on environmental science and policy issues. So back when I was an undergraduate, I was at Duke. They had actually just founded a new school of the environment. And then I discovered this new major in environmental science and policy, which was really novel at that time to combine training in natural science, with training in policy. And that really seemed to cover both of my interests, because I was at a crossroads and deciding was I going to continue with science? I had been majoring in biology. But I had also started to get interested in courses in political science and economics. And this seemed like a way I could potentially combine all of those interests.

I began to really enjoy the courses I took on environmental policy and particularly with an international focus. And once I started studying climate change, I just knew that was going to be my career. I learned it was really all about energy and the energy decisions that countries were making, our reliance on fossil fuels and particularly within the developing world, whether they were going to follow the same development pathway that the United States and others had done. Or, transition to these cleaner sources of energy that were now becoming more and more readily available.

I decided I wanted to go to graduate school specifically to study energy. I studied a combination of engineering, economics and policy again, and that's when I began to really focus on China. At that time, it wasn't necessarily obvious that China was going to become the largest energy consumer, producer, greenhouse gas emitter. It was not number one in all those categories at that time, but I picked it because it just seemed like an important place to study energy decisions and was growing rapidly.

I immediately started studying Mandarin and got a job working at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory with a group there, the China Energy Group, which really had a unique long-term relationship working on energy issues in China, close ties with policy makers. And that allowed me to start traveling to China, getting to know many key academics, policymakers that I still maintain many of those relationships to this day. And I studied at Tsinghua when I was in graduate school, doing research and also was able to embed myself within several Chinese climate and energy companies, including working on carbon offset projects and wind power development projects and a variety of things like that. So that's how I got my start in this area and then have continued from there.

Eleanor M. Albert: An amazing and fortuitous career path with the role that China plays in the world, economically, the impact that it will have on energy and the environment are kind of beyond parallel at this point. Now you were just talking about all of the relationships that you were able to build with your job and also with the research that you were doing. I want to flash forward to today. If I had to ask you to characterize the current state of U.S.-China relations, related to climate and science, in two or three words, what would they be?

Joanna Lewis: Two words would be “treading lightly.” We, the U.S. government and many U.S. researchers, [and] NGOs are doing more with China on climate change than we are doing with China on almost any other topic at this point. But as you hinted, of course, the relationship is really very difficult right now. While there has been a fair amount of attention on climate change over the last couple years, particularly with the Glasgow Climate Summit, it still just remains very much overshadowed by other issues, mainly of course the pandemic, and then, of course, the Russia conflict.

Eleanor M. Albert: Are there particular trend lines in this field? Are there areas within the field itself that present opportunities? It's such a behemoth category to talk about science, climate, energy. They're all interrelated and nested in some way, but are there certain buckets that fall under that overarching category that provide us a glimmer of hope for moving forward in collaboration? Or even if it's just parallel work. That in and of itself would be productive.

Joanna Lewis: There's a lot happening on climate, specifically. Climate is a huge topic as you mentioned, but a lot of the focus right now is under the international climate regime, of which China and the United States are both a part. We were very active participants leading up to the signing of the Paris Agreement back in 2015, and now both China and the United States have pledged pretty ambitious climate policies and so a lot of the focus of the engagement is basically on how we can make sure those pledges are met.

Particularly in China, the key policies are that they'll peak carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, and then reach carbon neutrality by 2060. Within China, there's just a huge policy mobilization around achieving those dual goals. But not necessarily doing any more than what's already been promised.

A lot of the international engagement is really focused on implementing those goals, really trying to accelerate ambition and accelerate action this decade. From a climate science perspective, this is really the pivotal decade in addressing climate change. And if we don't start to bend the curves and really change current emissions trajectories this decade, it gets really hard to get on these lower emissions trajectories that we would need to avoid the most dangerous impacts of climate change by the end of the century. So China, still as the largest national source of emissions is a huge focus in these international discussions.

In terms of trendlines, particularly in the U.S.-China realm. It's very difficult, if not impossible right now, for Americans to travel to China and for Chinese to travel to the United States. It just makes it really hard to have these sorts of conversations. We know it's a very difficult situation for people isolated from family members, for exchange students who can't go home, not to mention making research very difficult. But, it is surprising that very little effort is being made even for these diplomatic exchanges to occur, face-to-face meetings. Many countries have, even with COVID restrictions in place, some sort of isolation zone or allowed high-level officials to travel. But that really isn't happening right now within the Chinese government. It's just isolating China from the world. So even though climate is one area where we do see interaction, it is just not at the levels that it's been in the past.

Eleanor M. Albert: On this note of talking about COVID. COVID has obviously been the great disruptor worldwide. Currently with China and its zero COVID policy, it's prevented travel and face-to-face interactions. But simultaneously, there are increasing pressures on its economic trajectory. With that in mind how has COVID impacted China's policy imperatives on climate change? If you can't meet people, international cooperation is a much more challenging, if not a moot point.

[China is] prioritizing climate change in the short, medium, and long term, but there are also really significant economic challenges domestically, and for a country that has experienced so much economic growth, the prospect of declining, even negative growth, is alarming. Has this experience of isolation from COVID impacted the domestic policy thinking on climate and energy policy? At the same time, it also seems to me that climate, and energy innovations, and investment in particular, should be able to play a bridging role here? That's a potential growth engine, is it not?

Joanna Lewis: Regarding domestic climate policy, as I mentioned, the government still remains very focused on these goals, but it is really a cause for concern that the economy is so strained, given the shutdowns. We are seeing many signs of backsliding in several policies that have been put in place in the energy sector reversing these trends.

Coal is a big area, for example, where in the middle to end of the last decade, we saw a real slow in domestic coal use. We saw declining growth for the first time in decades, and that has basically flipped because when there are just concerns about economic slowdown, you see a lot of stimulus put into these traditional sectors, coal being one. That is being exacerbated by the crisis in Russia and Ukraine, where China looks at the energy security ramifications around the globe and looks to see, okay, well, how can they be as secure as possible?

Of course, renewable energy is inherently a domestic energy source. It's a secure way to produce electricity, but China tends to backslide to these tried-and-true policies to really shore up the coal industry. We actually see new measures put in place to encourage more coal mining, more building of coal plants, even though we know a lot of the current coal plants are not being run at full capacity. There's just not a lot of economic rationale to build these plants, but they do create jobs. They stimulate local economies. They provide a big tax base for many of the coal dependent provinces. And so we do see a relaxing of many of the restrictions in that sector that had been put in place a few years ago. I do think that's brought upon very much by the COVID related economic slowdown.

No one has walked away, certainly President Xi has not walked away, from these ambitious climate policies and still very much stands by them. But you see the real contradiction between longer-term goals and then what's happening right now in terms of increasing coal use.

So that is concerning, it's just so important that China not only meets these goals that they put forward, but ideally, they would actually increase the ambition of the pledges they've already put in place. There's a lot more that could be done. I do think that's crucial.

China is a global leader in clean energy. China has actually installed even more wind and solar capacity over the last few years, even with the COVID related economic slowdowns. These sectors have still been doing very well. The big concern really is how does China continue to grow in these sectors, and particularly, as they start to look for new opportunities, working with other countries is going to be really important because China really is the technology supplier for much of the world.

Right now, with a lot of discussion here in Washington and in Brussels and elsewhere about decoupling our supply chains from China, this is particularly going to have an impact on the clean energy industries. There's been a lot of course trade conflict in the solar sector between the U.S. and China, EU and China, others over the last two years. And that's only going to get worse.

It looks like even with a Biden policy versus a Trump policy, there has not been a big shift in the trade area. Within the U.S., the focus is really on investing more in innovation and clean energy, so we have more options to continue to deploy clean energy if it's harder and harder to import this technology from China. But it's been really important for these industries to succeed in China because this allows them to compete with the big state owned, powerful fossil fuel energy companies. And if they lose that global market, that could be problematic for China's own energy system in the long run.

Eleanor M. Albert: I want to pick up on something you were mentioning about how the U.S. and European markets have had trade tensions as it relates to China's clean energy technology. There's obviously a big other chunk of the world in the Global South, and a lot of the developing world, who ostensibly based on reports about climate change might face even more severe developments as a result of climate change. Where does China stand as an exporter to the Global South as it relates to clean energy? Is it pushing it? As far as Belt and Road goes, there have been a lot of mixed opinions. The clean energy sector could be a real positive point.

Joanna Lewis: I would say historically the data are very clear that the vast majority of energy investments coming from China going to the Global South, and including throughout the BRI countries, has been in coal and other fossil fuels. And then when it's been cleaner sources of energy, it's been predominantly hydropower, which has its own issues.

There's been some investment in renewables, but far less than in coal. Although President Xi pledged last fall at the UN General Assembly to stop financing coal plants overseas. That was a very welcome statement. We're seeing in terms of how that's actually being carried out on the ground, it's not black and white. The pledge was really for state development finance to not go towards these projects. Though, of course, Chinese companies manufacture the vast majority of these technologies.

And so, the government can't necessarily control... I mean they could, but they're not. They don't seem to be intervening in terms of projects that, for example, use Chinese coal technology in other countries. So there is still that trend of China having a footprint on the buildup of coal plants in developing countries. A lot of countries have very ambitious renewable energy targets now on the books as part of their Paris climate commitments. But these countries, particularly that are price sensitive, they're looking for whatever the most cost-effective way to do that is. For many years it was coal or maybe hydropower, but given the major cost declines we've seen in solar and wind, these technologies actually in many places are even more cost competitive than coal, hydro, gas, oil, et cetera.

However, that was really brought upon by the manufacturing scale that China brought to these industries. And again, as we get into this new mindset of thinking about interdependence with China, decoupling supply chains from China. This has been definitely brewing for a long time with a resurgence in green industrial policy around the world, green nationalism, building up our own domestic green industries.

But I think really it’s been exacerbated by the situation in Ukraine, real renewed concern and energy security and not being reliant on other countries. Whether it's for Russian oil and gas or Chinese solar panels. You see a lot of countries, including throughout the Global South, having these real discussions right now about how do they want to build out their energy systems and what kind of interdependence do they want? How do they want to be reliant on these other countries and do they want to be reliant on China or the United States, or do they have to choose, or can they just build out their own industries?

And that requires all sorts of technical capacity building. That's another thing China can really provide. China has at this point, vast knowledge base in the renewable space and does a lot of work through their South-South climate change efforts to work in these developing countries and transfer knowhow. They have a lot of facilities around the world. There's just a lot more that can happen there. But again, the needs on the climate technology front are just being really complicated by the political and economic situation right now.

Eleanor M. Albert: I wanted to get your thoughts on what some of China's strengths in the climate arena are. For example, there was a recent report that found that China had decreased its air pollution in as much as seven years as the U.S. did in 30. And that feat is lowering overall global smog levels. Now of course, emissions are still very large. How has China been able to make progress?

Joanna Lewis: In terms of China's strengths, they're not really unique to the clean energy and climate space. You see similar themes across different sectors, different aspects of how policies are implemented in China. But anything that has a strong, top-down mandate, that you can throw a lot of resources behind can get done pretty quickly in China. Whether that's building out gigawatt scale, wind and solar farms in the desert.That is different than China's new carbon market, for example, which has been launched and has all sorts of growing pains, because as we all know, in order for a market to function within a non-market economy there's just all these complications, you need a lot of transparency, you need a lot of data.

And there's just real problems right now where we have found a lot of falsification of emissions data, which then creates real problems for the functioning of the market. None of this was unexpected. But again, so there's some things that are easier to implement within the Chinese context and some things that are much more difficult.

Large scale renewables projects are relatively easy to do, also projects where they make sense at the local level, in terms of the economics and the political economy of these projects. An example would be in the energy efficiency space. If you reward a facility for making more output with less energy, that's in everybody's interest. So, in that sense, a lot of the energy efficiency targets that have been put in place, everyone has an interest to meet those, including plant managers, local officials, who get rewarded for those targets being met.

When you talk about local air pollution, it's really a very different issue. Because it's just a very different set of incentives. If you are being required to run a scrubber on a coal plant, for example, that removes sulfur dioxide emissions, you're actually using more energy to run that. And so, it makes it harder to meet your energy intensity targets while you have to meet your SO2… your air quality goals. So, there's some mismatch there in terms of incentive structures.

A lot of the so-called cleaner air we're seeing in China is in urban areas where we've just shifted. We've seen the shift of factories from urban to the rural areas. That's not a long-term solution. That doesn't help climate change, because climate change doesn't care where the molecule of CO2 is emitted. For air pollution that matters. It's better to emit farther from humans so you have less health impacts. But in China, that's hard to do. There are some sorts of targets and some sorts of policies, which are more successful within the Chinese political and economic context.

Eleanor M. Albert: In May, we saw that there were some reports of possible progress between the U.S. and China in working together on tackling climate change, but experts have talked about growing mistrust and technological barriers to move forward. Where does this mistrust come from? And then separately, what are some of the technological issues?

Joanna Lewis: On this topic of mistrust, this is always an issue. But it's only more of an issue in this political climate, which has just made it more difficult to have frank and open discussions, which impedes the flow of information that is important to building trust. Climate change is a very technical data driven field. Even if we're talking about high level goals, this is based on complicated energy and economic models and science models. There's only so much you can do in terms of exchanging information over webinars and Zoom dialogues. I really miss spending time embedded within research labs and doing true collaborations with Chinese colleagues. This ripple effect is being felt across the whole field.

But there's still a lot happening. The Biden administration has made it very clear that it's a priority to work with China on climate, just as it's a priority for them to work with other countries. But they've also made clear they're not willing to change their position on other issues just to get something the U.S. wants on the climate front.

The way that we are engaging with China right now on climate change is really different from how we have in the past. I actually just finished a book project looking at 30 years of bilateral cooperation with China on climate and energy from the U.S., but also other countries' perspectives. Right now, climate is really being handled in a separate track, out of Special Envoy Kerry's office. This is very different from the time of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue and these other like vast dialogues where climate was one of a whole set of security and economic issues being negotiated.

There are pros and cons to this model. When climate is completely separated from the broader relationship, this allows Kerry's team to just do their job, focus on the technical issues. A big focus right now, for example, is on methane emissions. This is a big area for both China in the United States to really work on getting better inventories, getting a better plan in place to reduce submissions for methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas, which has not been focused on as much as carbon dioxide.

But because of this, it also makes it a lot harder to get large scale things done outside the international climate space. Most importantly, there is almost nothing happening in the official bilateral realm on science and technology between the United States and China. It used to be a lot of our energy and climate work was part of the broader S&T umbrella. But right now, the politics just do not allow engagement on science and technology. There's just far less happening through the U.S. Department of Energy and other agencies that used to be very, very active in this area. This just really limits the scale of cooperation, it looks very different from the time under President Obama.

Under the Obama administration, the flagship U.S.-China climate and energy agreement was for a U.S. China Clean Energy Research Center, the CERC, and this was a massive undertaking that involved hundreds of researchers from China and the United States to work on a variety of clean energy technology projects. Nothing like that is happening under the current administration because the politics just don't allow it.

Eleanor M. Albert: Are there other stumbling blocks that exist in the climate relationship?

Joanna Lewis: I do want to point out that there is a lot that can happen even in the current political climate. At this point much of what is actually happening between China and the United States on climate change and energy is happening at the subnational level, is happening through non-governmental, through think tanks, philanthropies. There is a lot still happening in terms of exchange and dialogue. It's really important to emphasize that. The track one space is important, but it's not the only game in town by any means.

We also had a lot of the think tanks, NGOs, and foundations really step up their work during the Trump administration. They have been able to continue that support and play a very important role in making sure dialogues continue between key stakeholders in the United States and China. I am working currently with multiple philanthropic organizations to ensure that we keep serious dialogue happening on these issues, even in the current political climate.

Then of course there is really important work happening at the state level. For example, California still has very active climate engagement with China, which you would expect. But so does Wyoming, which you might not expect, which actually is leading a dialogue of coal producing regions from the United States and China. These conversations are able can continue even with the Washington-Beijing tensions. A lot of these subnational and track two conversations can still continue to happen. They're of course all virtual. They would be much more powerful in person as they used to be. I'm optimistic we will get back to that soon, but there is still a real feeling on both sides that these kinds of conversations are valuable and need to continue.

But there's really, of course, always more that can be done. There's just a lot of areas where we could be investing more time and resources to engaging with China. Some of the areas where it would be really important to do more is in this area of how China is engaging overseas with other developing countries and with BRI partners. The United States has really stayed out of a lot of these conversations.

There's just a lot of missed opportunity where the U.S. could actually be helping to leverage a lot of this massive overseas investment that's coming from China into cleaner sources of energy, and through Build Back Better World and these other initiatives coming out of the Biden administration. There's a lot of room to think strategically about how to leverage what China's doing in these countries, as opposed to just directly trying to compete with China in terms of who's providing resources to these countries. Because honestly we're never going to be at that level of resources.

Eleanor M. Albert: Climate change doesn't care who's funding what.

Joanna Lewis: We just don't have time. We need to be doing this immediately. We need to make sure every new power plant being built, whether it's in Vietnam or Indonesia or South Africa is clean. And if we're not in these conversations and we're not looking for ways that these host country governments can make the right economic decision for them, a lot of it's not even about money. It's about creating a better enabling environment for clean energy technologies. It's about removing investment risk for these technologies, which may appear to be higher risk in these environments, even if they have less experience essentially within these countries. There's just so much space for engagement there. I hope that's something that we can look for more opportunities to work with China on in the coming years.

Eleanor M. Albert: To wrap up, I wanted to talk more about the subnational level. You touched a little bit on how much opportunity there is. Are there ways in which different organizations, or is it about education and awareness campaigns in parts of the world to gain exposure. Who does that? How can we imagine what that might look like in terms of engaging more directly?

Joanna Lewis: A couple examples. A huge conversation that's happening right now in many countries around the world associated with the low-carbon energy transition is how we make sure we have just transition away from coal and towards cleaner sources of energy. And nowhere is this more important than in China where the coal industry is one of the largest employers in the nation.

It's such a cornerstone of the economy. And so when we talk about low carbon transition, this is not just a technical issue in China. This is about potentially putting a huge number of people out of work. This of course has ramifications for the party, for stability.

I mentioned there's this dialogue process happening, between these coal states in the United States and in China, and West Virginia, you have Shanxi, and you have local level officials side-by-side, talking about their experiences with the types of incentives they're putting in place and the types of retraining programs, worker training, all sorts of programs that we're looking at as opportunities to help to facilitate this transition in a fair and equitable and sustainable way.

It's one thing for our presidents to make these big proclamations, but then when you have the mayor of a small coal town in West Virginia, talking to a mayor from Shanxi province and realizing like they have a lot of the same challenges, that's just so powerful.

And there's just a lot that can be done at the working level. Whether it's the state government level or even lower municipal government. So much that can happen there, across NGOs, with universities where, for many decades, we've had robust cooperation with China. And I think, again, even as it's hard to travel, student exchanges are starting to continue. Visa processes have opened up a bit, so we can at least still have visiting scholars and things like this that are just so crucial to my work and to many of my colleagues’ work.

I think just an important takeaway from how we think about bilateral cooperation in the climate energy space. For many, many years, the United States was really focused on how do we help China address climate change? How do we help China with the low-carbon energy transition? And those high-level goals are not gone. But at this point there is just as much that we can learn from China about how we can facilitate our own low carbon energy transition, because China has far surpassed our levels of renewable energy penetration on the electric grid. They really are this living laboratory of how you do these very high levels of renewable energy within the power system that a handful of states in the U.S. can replicate. But we are behind where China is at the national level.

We can look at the way they're designing innovation programs, R&D programs to support new innovation development in these technologies. Whereas for many years, again, China was playing catch up. They were really reliant on foreign technology, but then again, that is not the case any longer. There is just a lot that we can learn from China's lessons with deploying these technologies.

There's this constant discussion about who's ahead. And who's more innovative. But at the end of the day, the climate is not going to wait around for us to decide where we're going to put our solar supply chains. What's much more important is how we figure out a way to scale this technology as quickly as possible, as cheaply as possible, of course, protecting labor standards and environmental standards and all these things that are so crucial in the process. But also making sure that we keep our eye on the end goal here and figure out a way where we can cooperate in the areas where it makes sense. And then we can compete in the areas where it makes sense.