In the past week, US officials have trekked to both China and India to highlight green technologies taking root in these fast-growing economies. If Obama hopes to get the climate bill through Congress, it will help if he can show that Beijing and New Delhi are willing to play ball.
The missions haven’t gone well, though. Trade friction is emerging as a key obstacle. China and India are livid at the suggestion that the US might assign tariffs on goods imported into the US to cover the carbon contained in those goods. And while China clearly “gets” cleantech (see my recent piece in BW and similar thoughts over at the NYT’s Green Inc blog and the Washington Post) — the importance of developing its own green technologies both to clean up its energy system and to export to others — India is lagging. The rhetoric coming of out Delhi is more bluntly nationalistic and, in the long run, probably a liability its competitive race with China in developing globally competitive clean technologies. Frank Maisano, at Bracewell Giuliani, connected the dots between these trips and the larger climate push quite nicely in a recent roundup.
In China, Energy Secretary Steve Chu and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke seemed to make important baby steps forward with agreements on building efficiency and research, but wide gaps remain on binding emissions targets and an international agreement. Of course, the entire week’s events were overtaken Friday by Locke’s comments that U.S. consumers should pay for part of Chinese greenhouse-gas emissions. Here’s the quote: “It’s important that those who consume the products being made all around the world to the benefit of America — and it’s our own consumption activity that’s causing the emission of greenhouse gases, then quite frankly Americans need to pay for that.” I don’t think labor and the manufacturing concerns of many Midwestern Senators will be eased by that. Of course, Locke was busy backtracking late Friday with Commerce press staff saying he meant “fair trade.”
In India, things went even worse for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton:
[Officials] basically told the US to go fly at kite as to whether they would accept emissions reductions. Yesterday, during a “green office building tour” that hoped to demonstrate how India and the United States could work together to reduce climate impacts, Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh complained about U.S. pressure to cut a worldwide deal on emissions reductions, turning the photo-op into policy discussion. Ramesh said that India would not commit to a deal that would require it to meet targets to reduce emissions: “India’s position, let me be clear, is that we are simply not in the position to take legally binding emissions targets.” Forced to retreat, Clinton said the US’s push for a binding agreement would not sacrifice India’s economic growth.
Some have observed that India’s truculance on these matters is for domestic political consumption. Given the nation’s deep-rooted traditions of self-reliance, politicians may get more bang by looking steely willed than by trying to sell the less tangible long term promises of green technology. For India, this position is short-sighted, and threatens to suffocate a key emerging technology. China is already ahead and shows every sign of moving faster into the space than even the U.S. Over at Grist.com, Anna Fahey tallies up the growing evidence that China is already leading, or is set to leapfrog the U.S. in clean energy technologies because of much deeper official support, from funding and to specific policy goals focusing on everything from renewable electricity goals to smart grid deployment.