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How can the USA and China cooperate and learn from each other to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?


China and the USA are the two leading emitters of greenhouse gases which are driving climate change. This paper explores how the two nations can cooperate and learn from each other in two key areas: transportation and renewable energy sources for electricity. Although each country has its own political, economic, cultural, and energy resource situation, many opportunities exist for moving away from fossil fuels. Cooperation could occur in a joint clean energy research institute to work on new and improved technologies, such as storage batteries, electric vehicle batteries, solar panels, green buildings, and carbon capture and storage. Avoiding trade restrictions such as tariffs on Chinese solar panels and other renewable components would be a strong sign of cooperation on climate mitigation. Cooperation on international climate agreements as happened at COP 26 will continue to be important. Exchange programs could be arranged to share experiences and ideas at the state/province and local government levels and involving think tanks, NGOs, and companies financing and developing clean energy. These exchanges can spur discussion and learning about new regulations, infrastructure, urban design, financial incentives, and technologies and how to adapt them to one’s own country. The fate of the planet may depend on cooperation between the two countries.

Climate change, resulting mainly from the burning of fossil fuels, is now recognized as a climate emergency that threatens the fate of the planet (Dennis and Eilperin 2021). China and the USA with their combined high levels of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, substantial populations, and dominant economies hold the world’s future in their hands. China and the USA are the main emitters of greenhouse gases (GHGs) that contribute to climate change. China generates about 28 percent of the world’s total annual emissions and the USA adds some 12 percent (Geall et al. 2021). Moreover, the USA leads in cumulative emissions over the past 170 years (Irfan 2019; Lieberthal and Standolow 2008, p. 1; UN Environment 2018, p. 6). The USA also ranks third behind Australia and Canada among the OECD countries in per capita GHG emissions (The World Bank 2021). The combined population of China and the USA is approaching 1.8 billion (1.44 billion Chinese and 331 million Americans), or more than one-fifth of the world total. And the two economies account for more than 40 percent of the world’s $94 trillion in GDP (Neufeld 2021).

China and the USA are often portrayed as geo-political and economic rivals (Doshi 2021). The level of distrust between the two countries is palpable, especially over addressing climate change (Geall et al. 2021). The USA is suspicious of China’s commitment to reduce GHGs given its heavy dependence on coal-fired electricity and China points to the fact that the USA leads the world in cumulative GHG emissions (Erickson and Collins 2021). China, however, refuses to be dictated to about climate change (People’s Republic of China, 2018). In turn, the USA has not shown little international leadership on addressing climate change and, like China, depends greatly on fossil fuels for its energy: The USA is the world leader in the production of oil and natural gas (US EIA 2021a). Despite the economic and political tensions, cooperation and mutual learning between China and the USA to curb GHG emissions are both sorely needed and possible.

This essay explores how the USA and China can cooperate and learn from each other to reduce GHG emissions. The essay features two climate mitigation challenges common to the USA and China: (1) Urban and regional settlement and transportation; and 2) Electricity generation and renewable energy. The responses to these challenges may include (1) Policies and regulations; (2) Financial incentives; (3) Infrastructure investment; (4) Urban and regional settlement design; and (5) Technology.

Simply copying a practice will not necessarily work, given the different politics, economics, culture, and energy resources in each country. Nonetheless, because there is no single solution to mitigating GHG emissions, cooperation and sharing experiences could hopefully lead to a decline in the use of fossil fuels and GHG emissions. Such decline would also lead to healthier cities and regions, given the correlation between improved air quality and lower GHG emissions (Daniels, 2014).

The importance of recognizing the threats from climate change

The first steps in responding to an environmental problem involve recognizing that a problem exists and understanding the dimensions of the problem. This is a key part of the ecophrenetic process, beginning with identifying reality and then applying ecological knowledge and wisdom to solve problems through an iterative process of planning, design, construction, and management (Xiang 2016, p. 53). The ecophrenetic process embodies the goals of socio-ecological practice to “bring about a secure, harmonious, and sustainable socio-ecological condition serving human beings’ need for survival, development, and flourishing” (Xiang 2019, p. 7). In the case of climate change, the stakes are both national and global and socio-ecological practice must become a guiding principle in managing climate mitigation.

The IPCC has stated that major reductions in GHG emissions must be achieved by 2030 to keep the increase in average global temperatures below 1.5 C (Masson-Delmotte et al. 2018, p. vi). The sixth assessment report of the IPCC noted that widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere, and biosphere have occurred and the likelihood of keeping under a 1.5 C temperature increase is fading (Masson-Delmotte et al. 2021). In sum, efforts to mitigate climate change are increasing in their urgency.

Both the USA and China have gradually and grudgingly admitted the threat of climate change. The George W. Bush administration declined to support the Kyoto Agreement of 1997 which would have required the USA to reduce GHG emissions by some 600 million tons a year (Speth 2021, p. 99). President Barack Obama, although acknowledging the threat of climate change, chose to pursue an “all of the above” energy policy (ibid., p. 116). President Donald Trump, a renowned climate denier, withdrew the USA from the 2015 Paris Agreement, under which the USA was required set a target—known as a Nationally Determined Contribution—to reduce GHG emissions (ibid, p. 146). While the federal government has avoided major climate legislation, over the past 20 years, state and local governments have taken the lead on climate mitigation. These actions include 600 local government climate action plans, dozens of states adopting renewable portfolio standards to compel utilities to increase their use of renewables in generating electricity, and several states setting target requirements for electric vehicle sales (Barbose 2021; Pulver et al. 2021).

In 2021, President Joe Biden quickly made climate change a priority policy area. He set four major goals for the USA: (1) Reduce GHG emissions by 50–52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 (The White House 2021b); (2) Have the sale of electric vehicles account for half of all new passenger vehicle sales by 2030 (The White House 2021c); (3) Provide electricity from 100 percent renewable sources by 2035 (The White House 2021a); and (4) Reach net zero GHG emissions by 2050 (ibid.). But President Biden’s main effort to fund climate change efforts through the Build Back Better bill has so far been stymied by Congress.

China began to recognize its impact on the climate more recently. The push to industrialize began in the early 1980s, along with the greatest transition in history of rural to urban populations (Gong et al. 2012, p. 843). The urban population soared more than threefold from 191 million in 1980 to 622 million in 2009, largely from in-migration (ibid.). Meanwhile, China’s gross domestic product expanded by five times, adjusted for inflation, a phenomenal rate of growth (The Guardian 2021). Much of the power for industry has come from coal-fired power plants which release huge amounts of GHGs.

In 2006, China overtook the USA as the world leader in annual GHG emissions (Rosenthal 2008). That year, China adopted a carbon emission target in its 11th five-year plan. In 2012, the National Congress of the Communist Party declared: “We must establish an ecological civilization that respects nature, adapts to nature, and protects nature, and puts ecological civilization in a prominent position” (quoted in Weller and Hands 2020, p. 22). In 2013, President Xi Jinping echoed this change in policy, stating that China must transition from a GDP civilization to an ecological civilization (ibid., p. 14). Despite the positive rhetoric, China’s annual carbon emissions have continued to increase. China has taken a more top-down approach to energy use and climate change than the USA. China’s coordination of climate mitigation policy between the central government and local governments has been inconsistent, and the effort to create low-carbon cities (with acceptable air quality) has not progressed beyond the pilot project stage (Yang et al. 2019).

Dominant in China is the push for economic growth. As Liberthall and Sandalow (2008, p. 30–31) explain: “China’s leaders feel they must first and foremost strive to maintain rapid economic growth, which they regard as necessary to sustain job creation, meet popular expectations of an improving standard of living, and thereby maintain social stability.”

China’s national climate goals include (1) Reach peak GHG emissions before 2030 and reduce the carbon intensity per unit of gross domestic product by 65 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 (Vaughan 2021); (2) Have electric vehicles make up 40 percent of all car sales by 2030 (Stauffer 2021); (3) Achieve 1200 GW of solar and wind generation capacity by 2030 and 80 percent of energy from non-fossil fuels by 2060 (Baiyu 2021); and (4) Become carbon neutral by 2060 (Doshi 2020).

The USA has somewhat more aggressive goals than China for reducing GHG emissions. But it is far from clear how each country will reach those goals (Daniels, 2014; Doshi 2020). Still, it is important to identify and analyze policies and actions in specific sectors in both countries to evaluate pathways for achieving climate mitigation goals as well as to identify areas for cooperation and learning. The following sections focus on climate mitigation opportunities in urban and regional settlement and transportation in the two countries, and electricity generation and renewable energy.

Urban and regional settlement and transportation

Urban and regional settlement patterns have major implications for transportation, energy use, and greenhouse gas emissions. China and the USA differ markedly in their sources of GHGs. In the USA, transportation is the leading contributor to GHG emissions, about 29 percent of the total (US EPA 2020a). In China, transportation generates only 8 percent of GHG emissions but about half of GHG emissions come from the industrial sector (People’s Republic of China 2018, p. 19).

China’s urbanized land area exploded from 7438 km2 in 1981 to 45,566 km2 in 2012 (Su et al. 2017, p. 3). China uses four main tiers to classify its cities: Tier 1 cities have more than 15 million people and a GDP of more than $300 billion; Tier 2 cities have 3 to 15 million people and a GDP of $68-$299 billion; Tier 3 cities have 150,000 to 3 million people and a GDP of $18-$67 billion, and Tier 4 cities have less than 150,000 and a GDP of less than $17 billion. China has 5 cities in Tier 1, 30 in Tier 2, 138 in Tier 3, and 480 in Tier 4 (China Briefing 2021). Urban expansion is expected to continue with 75 percent of the population living in urban areas by 2050 (Su et al. 2017). Urbanization along with rapid economic development has resulted in a significant loss of agricultural land, increased air pollution, haphazard development patterns, and a growing income gap between rural and urban residents (ibid.).

In response, to the growing urbanization, China has implemented a settlement concept known as the megaregion, which consists of one or more major cities and their metro areas that share economic, environmental, and social and cultural ties (Lang and Nelson 2007; Chen et al. 2020). In 2006, China adopted the megaregion as a cornerstone of national five-year plans. Goals include orderly urban growth, social equity, environmental sustainability, and economic development (Su et al. 2017, p. 3). China has designated 20 mega-regions, led by greater Beijing-Tianjin (over 100 million people), Shanghai-Nanjing (over 150 million), and Guangzhou-Shenzhen (over 60 million) (ibid., p. 4) (see Fig. 1). Altogether, the megaregions contain a majority of China’s population.

Fig. 1
figure 1

Source: Khanna, 2016. Map by University of Wisconsin-Madison Cartography Laboratory, copyright (C) 2016 by Parag Khanna; from CONNECTOGRAPHY: MAPPING THE FUTURE OF GLOBAL CIVILIZATION by Parag Khanna. Used by permission of Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved

China Megaregions.

China has made massive investments in transportation infrastructure to complement the megaregion settlement strategy. Since 2008, China has built more than 35,000 km of high-speed rail, the most extensive high speed rail network in the world (Jones 2021). High-speed rail has linked the cluster of cities within a megaregion and connected the megaregions to each other (The Economist 2020) (see Fig. 2). Especially for trips of less than 300 miles, high speed rail is competitive in time and convenience with flying and generates far less GHG emissions (Nelson and Lang 2011).

Fig. 2
figure 2

(Source: China Discovery 2021)

China high-speed rail network, 2018.

Ironically, the megaregion concept emerged from the example of the US northeast metropolis (Gottman 1964; Lang and Nelson 2007; Yaro et al. 2022). But implementing a megaregion strategy in the USA has so far proven elusive. Several USA would-be megaregions cross state boundaries (such as Cascadia, Northeast, and Piedmont) but few interstate planning agreements exist (see Fig. 3). The USA has more than 300 Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) that plan for how to spend federal transportation funds within a metro region, which may cross state boundaries, such as greater Philadelphia or greater San Francisco. But a megaregion consists of a much larger area of two or more metro regions (Nelson and Lang, 2011; US DOT, 2011). As Fig. 3 illustrates, megaregional planning could happen within a state, such as Southern California or the Texas Triangle, or across states, such as Oregon and Washington.

Fig. 3
figure 3

US Megaregions, (C) [2022] Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. From “Megaregions” by Robert D. Yaro, Ming Zhang, and Frederick R. Steiner (2022). Used by permission. All rights reserved

China has shown how massive investments from the national government in high-speed rail can link megaregions internally as well as to other megaregions. High speed rail is appropriate for the USA where the transportation sector is the leading source of GHG emissions (29%) (US EPA 2020a). High speed rail in the USA is evolving into a blend of publicly and privately funded systems. But the pace to install high speed rail has been slow.

The main US operating high-speed rail is in the Northeast, connecting Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC. The effort to build high-speed rail between San Francisco and Los Angeles has been hindered by cost overruns, with an estimated price tag now of $105 billion (KPIX 5 (San Francisco 2022). Even so, a handful of high-speed rail projects are moving ahead. The US High Speed Rail Association has proposed the creation of a high-speed rail development authority within the U.S. Department of Transportation to oversee and help fund the construction of high-speed rail. The Association also identified five essential high-speed rail projects, some of which are under construction: San Francisco to Los Angeles in California; Dallas to Houston in Texas (a public–private partnership), upgrading New York City tunnels; Portland to Seattle to Vancouver, Canada; and Tampa to Orlando and Miami to Orlando (privately funded) in Florida. Several smaller projects are on the drawing board, such as Los Angeles to Las Vegas (a public–private partnership), Chicago to Milwaukee, and Kansas City to St. Louis in Missouri (Mass Transit 2020; US High Speed Rail Association 2022; Yaro et al. 2022, p, 264).

The USA must find ways to build high-speed rail more efficiently and cost-effectively. Otherwise, US high speed rail systems are unlikely to support the megaregion settlement patterns that China has pursued. The USA can learn from China that huge federal investment in high-speed rail will be needed to create several networks. Furthermore, high-speed rail can tie together a megaregion to reduce short haul air travel and long car trips and help to produce a more compact settlement pattern (Nelson and Lang 2011; Yaro et al. 2022, p. 244). The savings in energy and the reduction of GHG emissions would be considerable (Yaro et al. 2022, p. 244). Also, millions of jobs would be created in the construction of high-speed rail networks (US High Speed Rail Association 2022; Yaro et al. 2022, p. 245).

Transit and electric vehicles

The USA has a dispersed settlement pattern which has created a “suburban nation” where, since 1990, more Americans live in suburbs than in central cities and rural areas (Duany et al 2000). These low-density settlement patterns have emerged because of huge investments in roads and a heavy reliance on cars and trucks, and as a result, suburban dwellers use more energy per capita than city residents and hence generate more GHG emissions per capita (Owen 2010). Federal transportation policy has greatly favored road construction and repair over the development of transit systems (bus, subway, and light rail). Transit ridership in the USA increased by only one million from 1970 to 2019—even though the US population increased by 120 million, and vehicle miles traveled in cars and trucks nearly tripled (Freemark 2021; Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis 2021). In the 2021 infrastructure bill, Congress authorized $39 billion for public transit and $66 billion in passenger and freight rail, but $110 billion for roads and bridges (Lobosco and Luhby 2021).

Replacing gasoline-powered cars with electric vehicles is a common goal for China and the USA. But this will not be easy for either country. China had 281 million vehicles as of 2019 and the USA had 276 million; and, not surprisingly, the USA and China rank first and second among countries in oil consumption (US EIA 2021a). To reach the goal of 40 percent of all car sales from electric vehicles by 2030, China would have to sell about 12 million electric vehicles in that year (Stauffer 2021). Ramping up production of electric vehicles would mean increasing electric vehicle sales from 1.6 million vehicles—just seven percent of total vehicle sales in 2020—to a total of 6 million vehicles over the decade to 2030 (ibid.). China has offered subsidies for buyers of electric vehicles, but the subsidies are expected to disappear as COVID retreats and automakers are mandated to increase the sale of electric vehicles. China is also requiring all gasoline-powered cars sold in 2035 to be hybrids (Nikkei Asia 2020).

New light vehicle sales in the USA in 2020 were about 14.5 million, of which 231,000 were all electric vehicles or a total of just 1.7 percent (US Dept of Energy 2021a).

China can learn from the USA to retain subsidies for consumers who buy electric vehicles. In turn, the USA should learn from China to require all new cars that use gasoline be hybrids by 2035. But China can learn from 12 US states, including California and New York, that have standards that require an increasing number of vehicle sales be zero emission. The automobile industry is already moving in that direction.

A challenge in both countries will be the cost of electric batteries and the availability of the rare earth minerals to make the batteries. China has an advantage as the world leader in the production of EV batteries and rare earths (Geall et al. 2021). But will there be enough lithium and rare earths to make tens of millions of electric vehicles?

Table 1 summarizes the general settlement and transportation approaches in China and the USA that promote movement away from fossil fuels and thus reduce GHGs. These provide a basis for mutual learning, with China leading in the use of high-speed rail infrastructure and megaregion settlement patterns to manage growth and the US leading in financial incentives for electric vehicles and zero emission vehicle goals.

Table 1 China and US Settlement and Transportation Actions to Reduce GHGs

Electricity generation and renewable energy

About 85 percent of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuels, which are also the main source of GHGs (The Economist 2020). Two major questions in the global effort to mitigate GHG emissions are how China will achieve its pledge of carbon neutrality by 2060 and how the USA will reach net zero emissions by 2050 (ibid.). Part of the solution to reducing GHG emissions is a transition to electrify vehicles, buildings, and industrial processes. The demand for electricity will increase, but the sources of electricity must increasingly come from renewable sources that replace fossil fuel-fired plants.

China leads the world in total energy production (US EIA 2020a). China ranks number one in coal production and second to the USA in electricity consumption; and much of China’s economic success has depended on coal-fired power plants to support manufacturing (US EIA 2020b). In 2019, China consumed 6875 billion kilowatt hours of electricity of which about 60 percent came from coal-fired power (US EIA 2020a). In 2020, China added 38.4 gigawatts of new coal-fired power, more than three times the capacity added in the rest of the world and accounted for nearly 55 percent of the world’s use of coal (Geall et al. 2021; Global Energy Monitor 2021, p. 1).

China’s heavy reliance on coal has come at a high environmental cost. Burning coal has generated huge amounts of particulate pollution, causing poor visibility, and widespread respiratory health problems (Gong et al. 2012). In 2013, China experienced some of its worst air pollution levels. The Chinese government responded with a strong effort to curb air pollution, and from 2013 to 2019, average fine particle exposure fell by 29 percent (Lee and Greenstone 2021, p. 18). Even so, “the average particulate pollution concentration in 2019 was still more than 3 times the [World Health Organization] WHO guideline” and overall GHG emissions have continued to increase (ibid., p. 19).

China must reduce its reliance on more than 1,000 gigawatts of coal-fired power capacity, which generate just over half of the world’s coal-fired electricity (Ember 2021; Shearer et al. 2020). Coal fired power plants globally accounted for 30 percent of CO2 emissions in 2019 (IEA 2020). But as of 2021, China had an enormous 247 gigawatts of coal power in the planning or development stages (Standaert 2021).

Going forward, China plans to invest $440 billion to build at least 150 nuclear reactors over the next 15 years (Chia 2021). In addition, China has 356 GW of hydropower capacity, more than the next four countries combined, and is planning to expand this source (International Hydropower Association 2020). Also, in 2021, China established a national carbon market (cap-and-trade program) to reduce carbon emissions; but some experts question whether the carbon market will be sufficiently aggressive in helping to reduce carbon emissions (Nogrady 2021).

Despite its reliance on coal, China has become the world leader in the use of renewable electricity with a wind and solar capacity of 534 gigawatts (Baiyu 2021). By the end of 2020, China had installed 281 GW of wind and 253 GW of solar power, accounting for 11 percent of the nation’s total electricity (Baiyu 2021) (see Table 2). A near-term goal is to reach 1200 GW in renewable power by 2030, so, solar and wind must more than double in capacity within 10 years. China installed half of the world’s record 6.1 GW of offshore wind capacity in 2020 (Global Wind Energy Council, 2021, p. 6). China is second only to the UK in offshore wind, accounting for 28% of the 35.3 GW of global capacity (ibid., p. 50.). China’s 14th Five Year Plan (2021–2025) mandates that each province draft a plan for developing renewable energy as well as a timetable for reaching peak GHG emissions (ibid. p. 23). Also, China has pledged to begin reducing coal use in its Fifteenth Five-Year Plan (2026–2030) (US Dept. of State 2021).

Table 2 China and US Wind and Solar Renewable Energy Capacity, 2020

The USA is currently the world’s leading producer of oil and natural gas and ranks third behind China and India in coal production (US EIA 2021a). The USA also consumes more electricity than any other nation. The USA is responsible for about one-eighth of global GHG emissions, but USA annual emissions peaked around 2005 and have since fallen by about 10 percent while the USA economy has grown by 25 percent (US EPA 2020). Advances in wind and solar technology along with inexpensive and abundant natural gas have made these sources cheaper than coal for generating electricity in the USA (Weise 2019). In 2020, wind and solar installations accounted for 75 percent of new electric generating capacity, with natural gas a distant third at 22 percent (US EIA 2021c).

The main reason for the decrease in GHGs in the USA is that since 2010, more than 315 coal-fired power plants have closed; and no new coal-fired plants are planned (Hitt 2020, p. 62). Natural gas-fired power plants have replaced many coal plants for base load power, and natural gas provides about 40 percent of the USA electricity supply (US EIA 2021c). In addition, wind and solar electricity have come way down in price, compelling the addition of more wind and solar generating capacity than natural gas power plants in 2020; wind and solar now produce one-eighth of US electricity (ibid.). But another factor has been America’s Clean Air Act and the regulation of pollution emissions. If an electric utility is looking to upgrade or expand an older coal-fired plant, it must make expensive improvements to comply with the Act (Hitt 2020).

China can learn from the USA that regulating air quality is one way to reduce coal-fired power, whereas China has placed a strong emphasis on economic growth, the cost in public health from coal-fired power plants has been high (Gong et al. 2012).

As of 2021, the USA had 169 GW of wind and solar capacity after adding a record 35 GW in 2020 (McLaughlin and Bird 2021) (see Table 2). The USA has only about one-third of China’s installed wind and solar electricity capacity. Still, the USA gets a slightly higher percentage of its total electricity from wind and solar than China, in part because of China’s greater reliance on coal-fired power. But like China, the USA must double its installation of wind and solar by 2030; otherwise, the USA has little hope of achieving its goal of reducing GHGs by 50–52% below 2005 levels by the end of this decade (ibid.). The USA currently ranks second behind China in the amount of installed wind capacity and annual additions (Global Wind Energy Council 2021, p. 45). Even so, the USA has yet to begin serious development of its copious offshore wind opportunities (ibid., p. 47).

Nuclear power does not produce GHGs, but the cost of electricity from nuclear is higher than for wind or solar in the USA. Nuclear power plants also are very expensive to build and take several years to come on-line. Disposing of nuclear waste remains a problem, and the near disaster at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in 1979 still looms over the US nuclear power industry. For these reasons, a greater reliance on nuclear power is unlikely in the USA.

Nearly all hydro-electric dams in the USA were built before 1970, when the National Environmental Policy Act became law. The Act requires a review of any federal action that could affect the environment (Daniels, 2014). Given that most of the best sites for hydro-electric dams have already been developed and the substantial environmental impact of dams, it is highly unlikely that new dams will be constructed to provide a large amount of electricity.

The US push for renewable energy has been hampered by short-term federal investment tax credits for wind and solar which make long-term financing and investment uncertain. Similarly, China ended its feed-in tariff for renewables in 2020 (Global Wind 2021 p. 6). The USA has been able to develop distributed power through solar roof installations, such as through California’s One Million Solar Roof program (CSSA 2019). This is especially attractive in low-density suburbs. But it is cheaper and more efficient to develop utility-scale solar to provide electricity on a centralized power grid. Widespread additions of utility scale wind and solar will require major upgrades to the USA electrical grid system and millions of acres (US Dept of Energy 2021b). More efficient solar panels and storage batteries would reduce the amount of land needed for solar installations.

It appears unlikely that the USA will meet the Biden Administration’s 100 percent clean renewable electricity goal by 2035. This is especially the case if there are disruptions of imports of solar panels from China. China, however, must come close to phasing out fossil fuels, with more than 85% of all energy and more than 90% of electricity coming from non-fossil sources—renewables and nuclear—by 2050, if it is to reach its goal of carbon neutrality by 2060 (Myllyvirta 2020). The USA will have to reduce its use of natural gas both for generating electricity and for home heating to reach net zero by 2050; natural gas is currently the leading fuel for electric power generation plants and more than half of US homes heat with natural gas (US EIA 2021b). Improved battery storage to enable renewables to overcome the problem of intermittency, so they can be a reliable source of base load power, is essential. Also, the replacement of natural gas furnaces with electric heat pumps will need to become a priority as will building retrofits for greater energy efficiency (see Table 3).

Table 3 China and US Electrical Generation and Renewable Energy Actions to Reduce GHGs

Discussion: how the USA and China can cooperate on clean energy.

Both China and the USA have an interest in greater energy efficiency in spurring economic growth (Liberthal and Sandalow 2008, p. (i). Perhaps an effective way to launch mutual cooperation and shared learning is through an emphasis on clean energy and energy efficiency as opposed to a focus on climate change (ibid., p. xi). China and the USA could benefit from cooperating to promote renewable energy because neither country at present is installing renewable energy fast enough to (a) replace fossil fuels; or (b) meet the expected increased demand for electricity because of population growth, economic expansion, and the greater reliance on electricity to power vehicles and buildings. In short, the mantra is “electrify (nearly) everything” and renewables will have to gain a much greater share of electricity generation to significantly reduce GHGs (Griffith 2021, p. 1).

Cooperation between the USA and China on research and development on clean energy and energy efficiency could be accomplished in several ways. A good opportunity would be to forge a joint clean energy research institute to work on new and improved technologies (Liberthal and Sandalow 2008, p. xiii), including:

  1. (1)

    Battery storage for electricity to overcome the intermittency problem of wind and solar power. The more efficient renewable technology can become the lower the cost of renewable electricity and the more likely it will be attractive for both countries to use renewables to replace fossil fuels and at a faster pace in order to meet climate goals of zero emissions by 2050 for the USA and carbon neutral by 2060 for China;

  2. (2)

    Electric vehicle batteries that do not rely on the limited supply of rare earths. A real question is whether there are enough rare earth mineral to support the manufacture of tens of millions of electric vehicles. Also, lighter and cheaper batteries could make electric vehicles more affordable and have a longer range between charges;

  3. (3)

    De-carbonizing the steel and concrete industries, which are major sources of GHGs;

  4. (4)

    Improved building technology (green buildings) for weatherizing existing buildings, and in new construction, electric heat pumps, smart buildings to better regulate heating and cooling. Buildings are a major source of GHGs;

  5. (5)

    Monitoring of energy performance and GHGs. Climate mitigation and socio-ecological practice involve active monitoring and data collection and the resources and willingness to uphold environmental standards. Greenhouse gas emissions can vary from year to year and must be closely watched. Accurate and up-to-date data are essential for understanding climate mitigation problems as well as gauging the progress of mitigation efforts; and

  6. (6)

    Carbon capture and storage at coal-fired power plants. The IPCC has noted that global efforts to mitigate climate change and keep the average temperature increase since pre-industrial levels below 1.5 C are likely to fall short, unless carbon can be directly removed from the atmosphere (Masson-Delmotte et al. 2018).

Real demonstration projects for each of these technologies and the pathways to bring technologies to commercial scale should be a priority.

The two countries could arrange exchanges at the state/province and local government levels and involving think tanks, NGOs, companies financing and developing clean energy (Liberthal and Sandalow 2008). Cooperation is not simply national governments and diplomats talking to each other. The exchange of ideas and experiences, often in informal ways, is important for learning new regulations, infrastructure, urban design, financial incentives, technologies and how to adapt new ways to one’s own country.

Avoiding trade restrictions, such as tariffs on Chinese solar panels and other renewable components, would be a strong sign of cooperation on climate mitigation. In 2020, China produced 72 percent of the world’s solar panels and is a major exporter of solar panels to the USA (The Economist 2020). The USA is the leading emitter of GHGs from petroleum (US EIA 2021b); if the USA is aiming to reduce these emissions in part through the adoption of electric vehicles, much of the materials for electric vehicle batteries will come from China. In 2020, China produced 69 percent of the world’s lithium-ion batteries and refined much of the rare earth minerals (cobalt and lithium) critical to clean energy (ibid.). Thus, free trade will be crucial if the USA is to have a chance at reaching the goals of 100 percent clean electricity by 2035 and electric vehicles making up half of all vehicle sales in 2030.

Cooperation between the USA and China on international climate agreements will be important to set goals and actions for GHG reductions and to send a clear message to the rest of the world about the importance of cooperation. A recent positive step occurred in November of 2021, during the Conference of Parties 26 in Glasgow, Scotland, when China agreed to reduce its methane emissions and to “phase down” coal starting in 2026 (Plumer and Friedman 2021). The USA and China then signed a joint declaration to work together to reduce GHG emissions to achieve the goal of the Paris Agreement: to hold average global temperatures to under 1.5 C from pre-industrial levels (US Dept. of State 2021). Specifically,

The two sides intend to cooperate on: regulatory frameworks and environmental. standards related to reducing emissions of greenhouse gases in the 2020s; maximizing the societal benefits of the clean energy transition; policies to. encourage decarbonization and electrification of end-use sectors; key areas. related to the circular economy, such as green design and renewable. resource utilization; and deployment and application of technology such as. Carbon Capture Utilization and Storage (CCUS) and direct air capture. (ibid.).

A common challenge is the fragmentation of political authority among different levels of government (Daniels, 2014; Ding 2004; Su 2017, p. 13). On the positive side, US cities and states have taken the lead on adopting rules and regulations to promote renewable energy, such as the renewable portfolio standard for utilities to obtain a certain percentage of their electricity from renewable sources by certain date and the state zero emission vehicle sales standards (Barbose 2021). More than 600 US local governments have adopted climate action plans to reduce CO2 emissions and adapt to the effects of climate change, though with varying results (Pulver et al. 2021). The federal government has traditionally ceded nearly all land use decisions to the states and thousands of local governments (cities, counties, towns, and townships) (ibid.). These decisions have produced the spread of suburbs and turned the USA into a suburban nation heavily dependent on automobiles (Duany et al. 2000). And sprawling settlement patterns reliant on internal combustion cars and trucks are a major contributor to GHG emissions.

China has five levels of government—the state, province, city, county and township (Ding 2004). Often, the central government issues fairly strict regulations, but the actual implementation and enforcement are largely undertaken by local governments, which have shown a greater interest in economic growth. Even the megaregions have yet to create formal governments (Su 2017).

Finally, climate mitigation is ultimately a political process, and both China and the USA will need to give climate mitigation a higher priority. For each country, the challenge becomes how best to use a combination of regulation and policy, financial incentives, infrastructure, urban and regional and building design, and new technologies to reduce GHGs and to achieve green, low-carbon development (The White House 2021a; UNFCCC 2021).

Conclusions and recommendations

Several opportunities exist for the USA and China to cooperate and learn from each other to reduce GHG emissions. But the two countries must view each other as equal partners with much to gain from developing renewable clean energy, sustainable settlement patterns, and transportation systems. Cooperation will have to overcome long-standing suspicion and economic and political competition. Fundamental is the recognition that reducing GHGs from fossil fuels is essential for keeping global average temperature increases to under 1.5 C and thus minimizing the likelihood of future catastrophic weather events. Given that China and the USA are the leading emitters of GHGs, the fate of the world may well depend on the success of their relationship.

A package of regulations and policies, financial incentives, infrastructure, designing urban and regional settlements for greater energy efficiency, and new technologies will be needed, but each country will have to adapt these approaches to their respective political economic, and cultural situation. In addition, social equity will be an important to avoid placing a heavy burden on lower income people. But to lead the way, the political systems in both countries must embrace the notion that a healthy environment is an essential economic asset and is paramount for both current and future generations. The political process in both countries must lay out a road map for climate mitigation and follow that map into the future; and political authorities must be consistent in their implementation to reduce GHGs. This is ideally how socio-ecological practice can produce a harmonious and sustainable outcome for the planet.


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Correspondence to Tom Daniels.

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Daniels, T. How can the USA and China cooperate and learn from each other to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?. Socio Ecol Pract Res 4, 103–115 (2022).

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  • Megaregion
  • Fossil fuel
  • Renewable energy
  • Climate change
  • Mitigation