U.S. - China Subnational Climate Cooperation - Updates, Progress, and Recommendations: Part Two

July 14, 2022

Note: This is a two-part blog series. The first blog provides a brief update on the state of U.S.-China subnational climate cooperation and reviews domestic progress on climate policy in the U.S. The second blog reviews domestic climate progress in China, and concludes with a set of recommendations on enhancing subnational U.S.-China climate cooperation. 

The first blog in this two-part series, provided a brief update on the state of U.S.-China subnational climate cooperation and reviewed domestic progress on climate policy in the U.S. This second and final piece, provides more detail on subnational climate action and progress in China, and concludes with suggestions on how to re-invigorate U.S.-China cooperation and facilitate greater mutual understanding.

In China, a number of factors have helped drive climate progress at the subnational level, including pressure to address air pollution, support for the renewable energy transition, related scientific research and commercialization, a commitment to “ecological civilization” as central to China’s development planning, and pressure from environmental NGOs.

To cut down on carbon emissions, local governments in China have established plans to decrease carbon intensity, and launched low-carbon pilot projects in cities and industrial sectors. These subnational efforts piloted new emission-trading systems (ETS), developed subsidy policies to transition from coal to natural gas, and created incentives for electric vehicles. According to the Harvard Global Institute, the seven ETS pilots in provinces and cities were successful in “significantly reduc[ing] CO2 emissions and carbon intensity… and also achiev[ing] reductions in total energy consumption and structural changes in the energy sector.” Although provincial ETS have been successful, provinces such as Guangdong have had to choose between maintaining an independent ETS, or merging with the national ETS and receiving additional support. The successes in these subnational ETS systems have informed and benefitted China’s national ETS. 

Other efforts at the subnational level to help China achieve its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) include local low-carbon transformation plans and disaggregation of emissions-intensity targets at the provincial level, low-carbon pilot projects at national, provincial, and municipal levels, established regional goals for reaching peak emissions, and local subsidy policies. Local efforts to create concrete plans to combat carbon emissions are also increasing; 7 cities, including Beijing, and 38 companies in China have joined the UNFCCC Climate Action Alliance, an initiative that brings together actors working to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

In addition to provincial and municipal advances in carbon emission reduction programs, subnational actors in China are also making progress in reaching the country’s goal of carbon neutrality by 2060 through the Alliance of Peaking Pioneer Cities (APCC), which was founded in 2015. This network of 23 Chinese cities, provinces and municipalities aims to create new targets and policies to reach peak — and rapidly reduce — greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Despite differing climate goals and infrastructure capacity among APCC members, according to New Climate Institute, “the APPC have been successful in achieving emission reductions and proves that meeting climate goals and economic benefits are interlinked.”

China and its subnational leaders have also been involved in a number of international climate partnerships and initiatives. This includes the Belt and Road International Green Development Coalition (BRIGC), initiated in 2019, the EU-China Partnership, established in 2005, and the joint declaration between the U.S. and China on climate change at COP26 in November 2021. Subnational engagement in international partnerships includes Chinese cities’ involvement in the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, the C40 Coalition, and the Under2 Coalition.


While subnational governments in the U.S. and China have continued to forge ahead with their own climate initiatives and programs, broader cooperation and the sharing of experiences and best practices has largely been stymied due to COVID, diplomatic dysfunction, and other factors. To continue and enhance cooperation on subnational climate action between states and provinces in the U.S. and China, we recommend the following: 

  • Continue/restart subnational dialogues that have stalled during the pandemic: Virtual dialogue and cooperation has been difficult over the past few years, and it is critical that channels of communication remain open between U.S. and Chinese states and provinces. The California-China Climate Institute will continue to facilitate dialogue and training remotely and with an eye toward expanding exchanges as COVID-19 and travel restrictions ease. The Biden Administration also has a role to play in working with cities and states to engage with Chinese counterparts. Under the Obama Administration, the U.S. and China worked together at the national level to facilitate subnational cooperation between their respective states and regions. This form of cooperation, similar to the China Climate Leaders Summit that took place in Los Angeles in 2015, should be re-initiated. 
  • Renew subnational agreements and the US-China Governors’ Forum: The U.S. and China should reinstitute U.S.-China cooperation under the “Memorandum of Understanding between the Government of the United States and the Government of the People’s Republic of China Concerning the Establishment of the US-China Governors’ Forum to Promote Subnational Cooperation,” signed by the two countries in the early days of the Obama administration and halted by the Trump Administration. The US-China Governors’ Forum is a partnership between the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC) and the National Governors Association (NGA) on the U.S. side. The forum has been held five times since the MOU was signed in 2011, bringing together subnational leaders from 23 Chinese provinces and 35 U.S. states. The Forum became a valuable platform for China-US subnational cooperation, including on climate change issues, and was also instrumental in helping to promote bilateral trade and investment opportunities. 
  • Continue to partner at the subnational level through the Under2 Coalition: Made up of more than 270 state/provincial level governments, the Under2 Coalition’s members commit to keeping global temperature rise well below 2°C with efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C. In 2017, the Climate Group co-hosted the Under2 Clean Energy Forum in Beijing alongside former California Governor Jerry Brown, China’s Ministry of Science and Technology, and Sichuan Province. At the Under2 Clean Energy Forum, two agreements were announced that focused on supporting clean technology innovation through institutions in California and China.

As the planet continues to warm and the impacts continue to mount, further climate collaboration and cooperation between the US and China — particularly at the subnational level — is absolutely imperative.


 1Nilsson, Smit, & Kuramochi, “Non-state and subnational climate action in China,” NewClimate Institute, December 2021, p 12.