This post originally appeared on The Huffington Post.
It may not be coincidental that soon after NBA Knicks’ Jeremy Lin dazzled the nation with a seemingly infallible jump-shot, China’s vice president, heir apparent and avid basketball fan Xi Jinping made an official U.S. visit.
But while Lin — a Harvard graduate raised with Chinese and American values by a “Tiger Mom” — has proven remarkable on the court, China and the U.S. as players in the environmental arena have performed more like junior-varsity playground scrappers.
This year’s Environmental Performance Index, produced with my colleagues at Yale and Columbia Universities, revealed the U.S. and China respectively ranked at 49th and 116th place out of 132 countries. The U.S. and China fare even worse if we look at their performance trend index numbers across the last decade: 77th and 100th, respectively. While both countries have made some progress in a few environmental categories, notably environmental health conditions, their showing on climate change – often considered one of the world’s greatest environmental threats — is paltry: Out of 132 countries, China ranks 93rd; the U.S. ranks 121st — firmly in the bottom decile.
These are frightful scores for two countries that collectively emit more than 40 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide. To make matters worse, any mention of climate change — or, more broadly, environmental concerns in general — was noticeably absent last week when Xi met with top U.S. officials in Washington D.C. to discuss a range of “greatest concerns” for both countries.
These are consequential omissions that could set the wrong precedent for China’s leadership transition. Particularly at a time when U.S.-China cooperation on climate and energy under a new Xi leadership is uncertain, this recent trip missed an opportunity to set key messages for Xi to consider in the coming months.
One of the most straightforward aims must be U.S.-China cooperation on technology innovation. Although China’s carbon intensity (emissions of CO2 per unit of GDP) decreased last year, its overall emissions increased. China was able to achieve easy efficiency gains in the last five-year policy period through elimination of small manufacturing facilities in energy-intensive sectors and by targeting its greatest energy consuming enterprises. For China to meet the carbon intensity reduction goals outlined in its next Five-Year Plan — a national reduction of 16 percent — will almost certainly demand research and development collaboration in emerging technologies like carbon capture and storage.
Xi’s meeting with President Obama could have also advanced mutual understanding of domestic clean energy policies in both countries, helping to ease tensions over issues like subsidies – a sticking point offered small remedy last January when Presidents Obama and Hu Jintao met. In that meeting, President Hu agreed to end domestic subsidies for China’s wind industry, a move seen by U.S. trade representatives as hugely progressive due to the controversial nature of China’s seemingly protective domestic policies. The U.S. and China must continue to resolve differences in national economic policies that inhibit joint innovation and advancement of renewable energy technologies.
Finally, both countries must redefine their roles as leaders in global climate negotiations.
In light of its obstinacy this past December in Durban, the U.S. must act more aggressively and positively as a leader of climate change policy if it expects China to follow suit; U.S. stubbornness legitimizes the excuses of other countries that shy away from effective action. First and foremost, U.S. leadership must sidestep partisan politics on climate change and willingly contribute to a legally-binding deal to be decided by 2015. (Admittedly, we must wait until November to see whether we experience our own Executive transition.)
Regardless, weak U.S. leadership in global negotiations could tip China the same way under a new Xi presidency. Although China demonstrated new and considerable leadership in Durban last year, its recent opposition to the E.U. airline tax on carbon emissions demonstrates an uneasiness to fully accept the responsibilities implied in such a global leadership position. This slipperiness portends a China that, while more constructive than the U.S. in the global climate regime, still plays largely to its own domestic interests.
If China and the U.S. aim to bring their own version of “Linsanity” to climate and energy policy under new leadership, then both countries must pursue active and open dialogue and seek middle ground in the current race of self-interest.