Dr. Chu in China: Warnings, Money, Leapfrogs

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Energy Secretary Stephen Chu and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke are both in China today, forming a new joint research program for US/China cooperation on clean vehicles and buildings with China's Minister of Science and Technology Wan Gang. (The very fact that Chu and Gang are sitting down to talk is reason for some hope: They are cut from similarly brainy optimistic technocratic cloth and before government both spent a long time at the cutting edge of private industry's research. Chu was at Bell Labs, where he won a Nobel. And Gang was at Audi's research center in Germany. Having interviewed both of them, I can easily imagine them having a beer. But if they do, there will be a leapfrog under the table, testing out its first hops.

Chu and Locke are on a unenviable chore of a mission to get China to publicly commit to reducing CO2 emissions. The Wall Street Journal's Environmental Capital Blog points out that the tensions in this mission are evident in the difference between the WSJ headline ("Chu Warns China on Emissions")  and the China Daily's: "Chu Says US Ready to Lead on Climate Change." The less public truth, as Chu knows from his stint at LBNL, which works extensively with China, is that China is very concerned about the environmental and competitive impacts of climate change and legislation and is preparing extensively and helter skelter, but not talking about it much. (Here's an article I wrote about the extent of China's energy efficiency program and its 20 year cooperation with LBNL.) Numerous bureaucrats told me that they were coming to see carbon reductions as a competitive strategy, particularly against the slower moving US, and a way of breaking out of the trap of low-cost labor as the country's competitive advantage. In the Reuters article, Locke rightly points out that China needs far more than energy efficiency. 

And that's where Wan Gang comes in. He returned to China from Germany after writing a highly influential paper saying that the only way for China to dominate the auto industry of the future is to be a pioneer in alternative fuel vehicles. Aka Leapfrogging.  (Here's an article I wrote about that mission for Wired. Substitute hybrid and electric for hydrogen and note that Wan Gang's fortunes have risen considerably.)

China can't bet its future on leapfrogging anymore than the US can bet its competitiveness on preventing the worldwide adoption of emissions standards. Will Chu and Gang figure out a collaboration that satisfies the competitive urges of both?

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Lisa Margonelli is a writer on energy and environment. She spent four years and traveled 100,000 miles to write her book, "Oil On the Brain: Petroleum's Long Strange Trip to Your Tank." More

Lisa Margonelli directs the New America Foundation's Energy Productivity Initiative, which works to promote energy efficiency as a way of ensuring energy security, greenhouse gas emissions reductions, and economic security for American families. She spent roughly four years and traveled 100,000 miles to report her book about the oil supply chain, Oil On the Brain: Petroleum's Long Strange Trip to Your Tank, which the American Library Association named one of the 25 Notable Books of 2007. She spent her childhood in Maine where, during the energy crisis of the 1970s, her family heated the house with wood hauled by a horse. Later, fortunately, they got a tractor. The experience instilled a strong appreciation for the convenience of fossil fuels.

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