The world's two largest polluters edged closer to each other in the diplomatic dance towards an international climate change deal yesterday when they agreed to set up a jointly owned energy research centre.
The US and China signed a memorandum of understanding and each agreed to put in $15m (£9.2m) to set up the joint research facility, which will have headquarters in both countries. The aim is to develop more fuel-efficient vehicles, energy-efficient buildings and new technology to reduce and sequester carbon dioxide emissions from burning coal.
The move is part of efforts to accelerate the transfer of clean technologies from the US to China try to curb the emerging economy's soaring carbon emissions.
Despite the fact that China will generate 10,000MW of electricity from wind turbines by the end of this year and an expected 30,000MW by the end of 2010, about 80 per cent of its supply still comes from coal. In contrast, coal currently accounts for about 49 per cent of electricity generation in the US.
US energy secretary Steven Chu, who was on his first official trip to China with US commerce secretary Gary Locke, said that improving the energy efficiency of buildings was now a priority for both the US and China as real estate consumes 40 per cent of the world's energy and produces nearly half of all greenhouse gas emissions. He believes that at least 30 per cent of this pollution could be eradicated at no net cost by simply upgrading old buildings and installing modern energy-efficient equipment in new ones.
Chu also indicated that his visit to China was part of a relationship-building exercise, rather than an attempt to strike broad deals on climate or energy policy - a claim that nonetheless did not prevent him urging China to join the US in setting targets to cut carbon emissions.
The US Congress has already passed a landmark climate and energy bill, pledging to reduce such emissions by 83 per cent by 2050 from 2005 levels, although it has yet to go through the Senate. The bill, which would require power companies to use more renewable energy and introduce a cap-and-trade scheme for carbon emissions, comes in advance of the United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen in December.
However, the wider UN-backed talks currently appear stuck in deadlock, with Beijing and other developing nations so far rejecting demands to set compulsory greenhouse gas emission limits.
They believe that developed countries should shoulder most of the responsibility for such action, but have not yet set themselves stringent enough targets. If cuts by developing world states cannot be agreed upon, however, it is unlikely that the energy bill will be passed by the US Senate.
Speculation is now mounting that China and the US could reach their own bilateral deal and then demand that other nations accept it in Copenhagen. Chu indicated to the New York Times that the two countries might conduct talks to work out their differences on climate policy in advance of the meeting, although he claimed that no such activity had taken place during his trip.
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