“Cooperating for the Climate: Learning from International Partnerships in China’s Clean Energy Sector” by Joanna I Lewis


China is often seen by its peer economies as a problem. Yet, as far as climate change is concerned, Joanna Lewis writes in a new book, China has the potential to be part of the solution. Lewis, a distinguished professor at Georgetown University, highlights the importance of national bilateral cooperation with China in Cooperating for the Climate and explores China’s rise in green innovation and its growing role in international clean energy partnerships. Despite evident challenges, Lewis argues that fostering such collaborations is in the interest of the US and the world.

Cooperating for the Climate: Learning from International Partnerships in China’s Clean Energy Sector, Joanna I Lewis (MIT Press, March 2023)
Cooperating for the Climate: Learning from International Partnerships in China’s Clean Energy Sector, Joanna I Lewis (MIT Press, March 2023)

In a particularly interesting chapter, Lewis provides an overview of the growth of China’s clean energy sector and underlying policy dictates. One of Lewis’s main themes is China’s transition from being a recipient to generator of clean energy knowledge and then emerging as a South-South sharer of such knowledge, all supported by strategic industrial policy. The 1990s marked the beginnings of a pronounced shift in China’s economic planning model away from carbon-intensive growth towards a low-carbon, innovation-based economy, making clean energy industries integral to its growth. China has led the US and EU in new clean energy investments every year since 2010. Yet despite this effort, China remains the world’s largest producer of annual greenhouse gas emissions, at around 35% of total.

Elsewhere, Lewis shows that the number of bilateral clean energy and climate agreements with China has risen steeply, in conjunction with its rise as a clean energy leader. This analysis draws on an exhaustive database compiled by the author over the course of six years. It is, by her estimation, the most comprehensive of its kind, with data from the 1990s to the present, involving extensive research and supplemented by interviews. The book evaluates political, economic, and technical factors shaping these relationships, focusing on China’s collaborations with the US, Denmark, and Brazil.

Lewis categorizes bilateral initiatives by technological and political benefits, with those scoring high in both creating diplomatic opportunities and requiring IP rights protection. The book itself primarily emphasizes relationship-building. The 2014 joint announcement by China and the Obama administration on their contributions to the Paris Agreement is, she argues, a good example of a successful collaboration. It set the stage for the signing of the Paris Agreement. Technological breakthroughs or successful commercialization of technology resulting from collaborations are, on the other hand, not highlighted, leaving the reader to guess at their tangible impacts.

Cooperating for the Climate offers a detailed analysis of significant national bilateral clean energy partnerships with China. Catering to an expert audience interested in the intricacies of structuring bilateral agreements on climate collaboration, and the national motivation behind them, the book may seem dull and acronym-filled to the uninitiated. Detail can obscure the book’s most significant insights. Lewis maintains a reserved tone, seeming to shy away from voicing strong opinions, with the notable exception of her criticism of the Biden administration’s decision to walk away from science and technology partnerships with China, due to their perceived risks. She argues that this move squanders years of negotiations aimed at building trust and ensuring IP rights, at a crucial time when dialog is needed most.

Jill Baker is an Adjunct Fellow at the Asia Business Council in Hong Kong and a contributor to Forbes.com.