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Originally published February 18, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified February 18, 2009 at 12:00 PM

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Clean-energy forum lets U.S., China swap ideas

The U.S. and China can begin cooperating on clean energy by co-funding a joint research and development center with shared intellectual...

Seattle Times business reporter

The U.S. and China can begin cooperating on clean energy by co-funding a joint research and development center with shared intellectual property, creating tax-free "special energy zones" within cities to demonstrate new projects, and training a corps of energy-conservation auditors, participants in an international forum here said this week.

The U.S. China Clean Energy Forum wrapped up a week of meetings Tuesday, edging the two sides closer but without producing as many specific plans for action as some had hoped.

The two have been working together on energy issues for 30 years. Despite signing 42 agreements and producing 33,000 joint research projects, they're now "in a worse situation than at the beginning of that relationship when it comes to energy and the environment," said Seattle businessman Stanley Barer, the forum's national co-chairman.

While participants talked about growing opportunities for future cooperation, particularly with $60 billion of the U.S. economic-stimulus package going toward clean energy, the talks also revealed what a daunting challenge they face.

Barriers include U.S. export controls, lack of intellectual-property protection in China and the elephant in the room: coal.

"Not one person in that room likes coal," said Joseph Borich, president of the Washington State China Relations Council. "Coal is the ugly stepchild nobody wants to take responsibility for, and it's probably the hardest issue to grapple with."

China is building one new coal-fired power plant a week, and coal generates about 70 percent of its energy. The U.S. uses coal for about 23 percent of its energy, and so-called "clean coal" proposals have proved expensive and far off.

"With this downturn, we have even an bigger incentive to make investments in technology solutions to help get us off fossil fuels," said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. "In the near term, we have to reduce CO2 by using more renewables."

China's annual output of carbon dioxide has surpassed that of the United States. But on a cumulative basis, the U.S. has contributed close to 30 percent of the total, while China's share is about 8 percent, said Gao Guangsheng, director general of the Climate Change Department in China's National Development and Reform Commission.

Considering its huge population and fast-growing economy, "it's naturally expected that China's contribution to greenhouse-gas emissions will rapidly increase," Gao said.

The visiting Chinese leaders, trying to assess the new political environment in Washington, D.C., saw support for cooperation, said Zha Daojiong, professor of international political economy at Peking University. In the past, the U.S. emphasis on national security "made spending federal government resources to assist energy development in China ideologically unacceptable," Zha said.

The forum received letters of support from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Carol Browner, assistant to the president for energy and climate change. Cantwell spoke to the group twice and sent a letter to President Obama signed by 14 other senators, urging him to establish a bilateral agreement with China on clean-energy cooperation.

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Jonathan Woetzel, director at McKinsey in China, said the U.S. and China can sharply reduce their carbon emissions by designing energy-efficient buildings, moving away from coal and driving electric cars.

But action is needed now. "The longer we wait, the more expensive and riskier it will be," Woetzel said.

Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or kheim@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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