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California's climate diplomacy: Opening doors in China

This week, California Governor Jerry Brown is on a much-publicized visit to China, with the goal of encouraging a long-term economic partnership between these Pacific Rim neighbors and raising money for projects in the Golden State. As the world’s 9th largest economy, California has much to gain from good relations with China, the world’s 2nd largest economy -- with its eyes set on being number one.

But the publicity about Governor Brown’s trade mission is missing a big part of the story: China’s request to tap the experts at the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to help it address its urgent air pollution problem, and a similar request to help Chinese officials set up their fledgling carbon trading markets to address climate change.

For his part, Governor Brown has made climate change a prominent component of his Chinese agenda. His itinerary includes a visit with China’s environmental protection minister, Zhou Shengxian, to discuss and sign a nonbinding agreement to reduce smog and greenhouse gas emissions.

The fact is, California’s ability to engage in this sort of “climate diplomacy” is a direct result of our state’s ongoing, global leadership in reducing air pollution, protecting human health, and acting aggressively to address climate change. While international action has basically stalled, California is charging ahead with its landmark suite of climate policies, including AB 32, the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006. The Act, which survived an attack from out-of-state oil interests two years ago, has positioned California as a global leader in clean technology innovation – but also in the kind of policy innovation that can transform energy markets and deploy these technologies at scale. And China, for one, is taking notice.

California’s track record in being at the forefront of effective environmental regulation is beyond dispute. Our early efforts to address deadly smog in Los Angeles lead to the creation of some of the first air pollution regulations in the world, and eventually provided a framework for passage of the national Clean Air Act, which has saved millions of American lives and nearly $1 trillion in avoided health impacts across the country. As China faces some of the worst air pollution conditions in history, it needs help from the experts who know how to address pollution while still enabling economic prosperity.

China has much to gain from following California’s example. A 2007 report from the World Bank estimated the total cost of air and water pollution in China to be about 5.8 percent of GDP. Earlier this month, the New York Times reported that outdoor air pollution contributed to at least 1.2 million premature deaths in China in 2010, or 40% of global deaths associated with air pollution.

But the benefits of an expanded relationship are of course not limited to China – the Golden State also has much to gain from a closer relationship with our neighbors across the Pacific. California’s green economy, by far the largest in the nation, stands to gain from Chinese foreign direct investment, estimated to reach between $1-$2 trillion dollars by 2020.

Ultimately, our climate change efforts will only be successful on a global scale if they are replicated by the world’s largest economies. Governor Brown realizes this, and will be strongly advocating for a shared ownership of the climate challenge this week. The information sharing that California leaders have been engaged in in China and elsewhere provides mutual benefits in advancing a concerted effort across many regions to addressing the global warming challenge.

This trip exposes the false dichotomy between environmental and economic goals – California has gained access to the world’s #2 economy because of, not in spite of, its visionary climate and health policies, and a contingent of the 90 business leaders in the delegation represent the clean tech industry.

In an interview before the trip, Governor Brown responded to a question about China’s role in addressing global warming: “So goes China, so goes the world,”; when it comes to energy and climate policy, a more appropriate phrase is perhaps “So goes California, so goes the world (including China)”. Governor Brown’s trip is a very real demonstration of the opportunities, whether economic, environmental, or political, that arise from our state’s investment in the next generation.

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