Speaker Pelosi in China

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LISA MULLINS: I'm Lisa Mullins and this is The World a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH in Boston. Relations between the United States are off to a good start under President Obama. At least that's what China's vice President told U.S. Senator John Kerry today. Well, it may be a good start, in part, because human rights issues have been played down lately by visiting Americans. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton didn't talk about human rights on her recent trip there. Neither have the members of Congress who are in China now. As The World's Mary Kay Magistad reports, what they are talking about is climate change.

MARY KAY MAGISTAD: There's a growing sense of urgency on climate change among leaders in the U.S. and China, driven in part by the upcoming Climate Summit in Copenhagen in December. That's one reason China is crawling with U.S. officials these days. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is leading the House Delegation this week to talk about climate and energy and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair John Kerry is here to talk climate as well.

SENATOR JOHN KERRY: This is a critical moment for U.S.-China relations. I personally believe that the success of Copenhagen can be defined by what the United States and China agree on in the course of the next several weeks.

MAGISTAD: The Obama Administration will be sending negotiators to China in two weeks hoping to nail down steps both countries will take to cut carbon emissions. Professor Zhang Jianhua is a power grid expert at the North China Electric Power University. He said at a climate change conference today that China's already come a long way on some important air pollutants.

ZHANG JIANHUA: For example, sulfur dioxide has been reduced about 20 times compared to ten years ago.

MAGISTAD: How about in the next five years? How do you reduce it further?

JIANHUA: We have to reform some power plants to change their equipment, to reduce their sulfur dioxide.

MAGISTAD: But sulfur dioxide isn't a greenhouse gas. China's now the world's top greenhouse polluter, mostly because of its heavy reliance on coal, which is cheap and abundant. Zhang says the mix of power sources probably won't change much soon, but China is investing heavily in clean coal research and state-run media say the government plans to invest $440 billion to expand China's renewable energy use, including tripling its goal for wind energy. "Great," says Dan Reicher, a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Energy and the director of Climate Change and Energy Initiatives for Google. But at the same conference, he said, "Google is investing in research into a more reliable form of renewable energy," something he called, "enhanced geothermal."

DAN REICHER: The usual conception of geothermal is you drill a well down to a pocket of steam or hot water, you bring it up and make electricity. What many people don't realize, even experts, is that you literally drill anywhere deep enough on the earth and you can get to hot rock. If you can fracture that rock, put water down there and bring it back up, you can make electricity.

MAGISTAD: Professor Zhang had something of an a-ha moment, listening to all this.

ZHANG: I think that most of the energy experts have a misunderstanding about geothermal. But after this meeting, I've changed my mind.

MAGISTAD: So you think that it has real potential for China?

ZHANG: Yes, yes.

MAGISTAD: For now, enhanced geothermal is till more expensive than coal, and it has its own environmental issues. Reicher says the idea is to drive down the cost by improving the technology and then, he says, the advantage is enhanced geothermal can be used almost anywhere. But even if that form of energy doesn't pan out for China, the government is pushing to increase the share of renewable energy in its total mix. Senator Kerry gives China credit for what its already done.

SENATOR KERRY: China is, in some ways, moving ahead of the United States. For instance, China's automobile standard is actually higher than the standard set in our country. China has upped the level of wind power commitment in its goals. If we make good faith efforts, this does not have to become a contentious competitive process. It can be a cooperative and beneficial one for people all across the world who will look to us for leadership.

MAGISTAD: But first, the world's two leading greenhouse polluters need to sit down and agree officially on what each will do to keep climate change from getting worse. They'll be spending weeks of the hot summer ahead trying to do just that. For The World, I'm Mary Kay Magistad in Beijing.