Among the many harsh truths that the failed Copenhagen summit in December drove home was that international consensus is not the easiest way to tackle a problem like climate change. From competing national interests to shortages of technological know-how to cross-border disagreements about who should pay for environmental degradation, the challenges of solving this problem at a global level are endless. But in the absence of an international climate change agreement, what can be done? Faculty members from the University of Pennsylvania in the U.S. and Tsinghua University of China debated myriad solutions at a symposium they co-hosted in early March at Tsinghua’s campus in Beijing titled, "Toward a Sustainable Future: Cross-Cultural Research and Technological Innovation." While hailing from different areas of expertise, they all agreed that the onus is on the world’s two largest carbon emission producers — China and the U.S. — to set an example for other countries to follow. That will be easier said than done.

"The biggest two sources of environmental problems are in some ways the biggest [obstacles] in facing the solutions," said Jacques DeLisle, a professor of law and director at the Center for East Asian studies at the University of Pennsylvania. "In this respect, the U.S. and China are a particularly problematic mix of similarities and differences."

The big question, he said, is to what extent each of the two countries should bear the responsibility for cleaning up the damage that has been done as well as putting measures in place to make the future much more green. The answer is not straightforward. According to DeLisle, China’s proposed 40% to 45% reduction in carbon intensity is a modest goal given the size of its economy. At the same time, the U.S. can’t shirk its role — many goods consumed in the U.S. are produced in China, so shouldn’t it also bear some responsibility for China’s environmental degradation?

While the question of responsibility remains frustratingly tangled, there is reason for hope, DeLisle and the other legal academics agreed during the symposium. On the U.S. side, there is greater friendliness toward international law today than in the last decade and the country’s new generation of green vigilantes are pushing environmental agendas more aggressively than their forebears. In China, the government has acknowledged the economic and social risks of environmental degradation, and although environmental law is weak, it has been improving rapidly from a low baseline. It also has helped that the Chinese government recently named sustainable development as one of its core interests, helping to galvanize various factions, from local governments to inter-government organizations.

More Bark Than Bite

Currently at an international level, there’s little that is being done legally to confront thorny climate change issues, noted Wang Mingyue, professor of law and executive director of Tsinghua’s Center of Environmental Law. Global laws look good on paper, but fall short on implementation, particularly since countries often have competing or even contradictory interests in the laws themselves.

The situation is only marginally better at national levels, Wang added. For proof, look no further than China. There has been a slew of environmental laws in China as the country’s leaders have slowly become more aware of the need for greater environmental protection. But the laws often have more bark than bite, said Wang. One key reason is that environmental awareness in China is still low, leading to weak enforcement of these laws. According to Wang, this should be a call to action for a host of stakeholders — including government agencies, politicians and corporate executives — to increase their involvement in environmental issues.

It’s for this reason, said Eric Orts, Wharton legal studies professor and director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership, that "the problem cannot be tackled from just one perspective." For example, addressing problems such as water scarcity requires not only scientific studies, but also business solutions and an enforced legal framework, he said.

Human rights also need to be considered, added James Li, a Tsinghua law professor, given that climate change affects food security as well as public and individual health and safety. "If changes are not made … sooner or later, we human beings will perish, no matter if you are rich or poor, strong or weak."

The foundation for change, however, will be laid locally rather than internationally, asserted Cao Jin, a Tsinghua economy and management professor. That’s why China’s environmental economists are looking at how to reconcile local pollution with global carbon limits. Consider a carbon tax being discussed in China. Currently, 70% of China’s energy comes from coal. A carbon tax could raise the price of coal and make other, more eco-friendly types of fuel more attractive, ultimately lowering carbon emissions, according to Cao. What’s more, "simulations show that the impact [of such a tax] on the overall GDP would be small." The money raised from such a tax could be invested in research and development and education. "As economists, we are optimistic. We are on the right track," she said.

Enter the NGOs

One way to improve China’s environmental track record is to allow non-governmental organizations (NGOs) room to grow and encourage the expansion of civil society, said Amy Gadsden, vice dean and executive director of international programs at the Law School of the University of Pennsylvania. As she reckoned, NGOs can improve environmental education at a grassroots level, while acting as policy watchdogs and incubators for new ideas.

The civil sector in the U.S. has already been the source of much change. NGOs in the U.S. have stressed the role they have played as the public’s voice in environmental protection. They bring together the best scientists, policy analysts and other experts, raise important but uncomfortable issues, and play a significant role in pushing for legislation and filing lawsuits to strengthen enforcement, according to Gadsden.

In China, NGOs are tolerated but not necessarily encouraged by today’s government, despite the fact that the country historically has deep civil society roots. In the second half of the Qing dynasty in Wuhan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the need for urban expansion emptied state coffers, private groups stepped in to help provide public infrastructure, building bridges and roads and the like.

"There are obvious similarities throughout China today," said Gadsden. Urbanization, economic development and economic reform are shaping civil society in modern China. While most Chinese NGOs are not engaged in public works projects, they describe themselves as filing the gap between what society needs and what the state can provide.

However, China’s government is still uncertain about how it wants to manage NGOs. At the moment, "it is choosing to muddle through with a system that neither bans nor fosters their growth." But this could change soon, said Gadsden. In the 1980s, China relaxed rules on private industry — at a time marked by deep ambivalence and poorly established vehicles for capital formation. Despite this, the private sector has thrived and government and legal policy has developed to support growth.

"I suspect Chinese NGOs are today where private companies were in the 1980s," said Gadsden. "I hope in the coming decades the government will put in place laws and policies that will allow them to flourish."

That’s not all that needs to flourish, said John Bassani, a University of Pennsylvania materials science and mechanical engineering professor. But with worldwide demand for energy expected to double over the next 20 years and the limited oil reserves spread unevenly around the world, more than conservation is needed. "Conservation is difficult," he said. "We need to increase efficiency."

That means renewable energy should be the main focus, especially solar energy, said Bassani. Though there are many renewable options — including wind, biomass and so on — he said solar energy is perhaps the most viable solution in the long term. "It’s very clean energy and we need to do all we can do to find ways to harness it."

When Good Is Good Enough

Qi Ye, public policy and management professor at Tsinghua, noted that though China has made progress in moving toward being a low-carbon society, it still has a long way to go. The U.S. is four times more efficient than China in terms of energy production per capita, but when looking from the perspective of consumption, a very different picture emerges. "The U.S./China ratio is 10 to 1."

This is key in understanding where the policy should focus. "Most policies are targeting manufacturing and business, but not consumption," said Qi. In the U.S., targeting consumption is difficult for political reasons. "The U.S. won’t target consumer behavior because the consumers are the voters," he noted.

Politics aside, getting people to change their lifestyle is even more difficult than developing technology to reduce emissions, observed Zhou Dadi, ex-director general of the Energy Research Institute of National Development and Reform Commission. For example, China is the world’s largest automobile market. If new ways were found to reduce car emissions, people would just drive more, he said.

Part of the problem lies in the urbanization of China, whose major urban centers are repeating the same mistakes made in U.S. cities, said Zhou. Consider Beijing. Urban developers created wide streets and sprawling suburbs and moved people far from business areas, leading to long commutes and regular traffic jams. Worse, many cities throughout the country are copying Beijing’s development, creating their own unsustainable urban structures with wide boulevards, sprawling suburbs and decentralized business districts.

But Zhou provided a word of encouragement, which could be applied to the entire spectrum of the climate change movement, from legal structures to national policy making to individual consumption. Rather than working toward the unattainable, "best" solution, he said, we should focus on attainable "good" solutions. Instead of "low" carbon, we should be aiming for "lower" carbon. Shifting the discourse could have an enormous effect on action, Zhou said.