Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Monday, May 23, 2011

U.S. and China must work together for a sustainable world, conferees say

The United States and China must work together to tackle one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century: how to develop sustainable societies.

Watch a video from the U.S.-China sustainability conference.

That was the message from several speakers Friday on the first day of a two-day conference, “Developing Global Sustainability: U.S./China Partnerships.” About 200 participants — about half of them from China — gathered at the Rackham School of Graduate Studies for the second of this year's Michigan Meetings.

Unlike a purely academic conference, this one featured representatives from the energy, transportation and water industries, government policy leaders from both countries, university researchers, and members of non-governmental organizations.

As the world’s top energy consumers, energy producers and greenhouse gas emitters, the U.S. and China will play central roles in the world’s transition to a clean energy economy in the years ahead.

Participating in a panel at the "Developing Global Sustainability" conference are, from left: Ma Jun, Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs; Neil Hawkins, Dow Chemical Co.; Dennis Assanis, Michigan Memorial Phoenix Energy Institute; Jerald Fletcher, West Virginia University; Xiangli Chen, GE China Technology Center; and Mark Banaszak Holl, Office of the Vice President for Research. (Photo by Austin Thomason, U-M Photo Services)  

“The United States is the largest developed country in the world, and China is the largest developing country in the world. We have strong common interests, and we also have tremendous expertise in energy issues. Working together, we can accomplish more than acting alone,” said David Sandalow, assistant secretary for policy and international affairs at the U.S. Department of Energy.

Sandalow was one of Friday morning’s plenary speakers. The other was Xiangli Chen, president of the General Electric China Technology Center in Shanghai.

“Both countries have, I think, an obligation and a responsibility to lead the world in terms of developing the right technologies, as well as the right business and governmental approaches to sustainability challenges,” Chen said.

“One of the biggest challenges I see — particularly from China — is the leadership mentality in terms of priorities,” he said. “China, in the past 20 years, has been developing at all costs. So the change from growing at all costs to growing at a sustainable rate will be critical going into the future. And that requires a change in mentality from the country’s leaders.”

The two-day conference focused on the key policies and technologies needed to attain sustainable energy, water resources and transportation, especially as they pertain to the United States and China.

“We’re bringing together groups who don’t normally talk together: folks from the government, industry, academics and NGOs in both countries. The perspectives of all these groups will be critical as we work to achieve a sustainable society,” said conference organizer Mark Banaszak Holl, associate vice president for research at U-M.

“I think it’s great that more than 200 people from both countries can join in this discussion,” said Ma Jun, the founding director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs in Beijing.

“It is important for China and the U.S. to work together because at this moment, environmental challenges are no longer local or even national issues,” he said. They have been elevated to a global level.

“Working together, we can create sustainable solutions to make sure that in the 21st century, while we are making progress on economic development, we’re not moving toward the depletion of resources and the destruction of biodiversity and even threatening the very inhabitability of this Earth,” he said.

The meeting builds on years of collaboration between U-M and Chinese universities. In 2001, U-M became the first non-Chinese academic institution approved to offer graduate engineering degrees to students in China, at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. In 2005, U-M and SJTU strengthened the partnership by forming a Joint Institute to manage and direct degree-granting programs offered by both universities to students from both nations.

Last year, U-M and SJTU launched two programs to jointly fund renewable energy and biomedical research projects involving investigators from both universities. Also last year, the Energy Department selected U-M to lead a U.S.-China partnership to advance technologies for clean-energy vehicles.

The $25 million Clean Energy Research Center on Clean Vehicles is one of several U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Centers, known as CERCS, created by the Energy Department. The U-M-led CERC will focus on vehicle electrification.

“Developing novel renewable-energy technologies is a very expensive proposition. By working together, the United States and China can share some of the costs and develop solutions more quickly,” said Dennis Assanis, director of the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Energy Institute and principal investigator of the U-M-led CERC. He helped organize the sustainable energy portion of the conference.

Sponsors of the international conference include the Office of the Vice President for Research, the Rackham School of Graduate Studies, the Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute the Dow Chemical Co. and Steelcase. Other sponsors: the Center for Chinese Studies, the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise, the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Energy Institute, the School of Natural Resources and Environment, and the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.