March 27, 2020

Georgetown Professor Receives Grant to Broaden U.S.-China Climate Conversation

Joanna Lewis, Provost’s Distinguished associate professor of energy and environment and director of the Science, Technology and International Affairs Program at the Walsh School of Foreign Service, believes the United States and China together have the power to significantly advance global climate and sustainability interests through their leadership in the energy sector.

Lewis leading a U.S.-China Research Group on Climate Change meeting in Beijing in 2016
Lewis leading a U.S.-China Research Group on Climate Change meeting in Beijing in 2016

Earlier this spring, Lewis won a $250,000 grant from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund to examine energy investment decisions in emerging and developing countries as they work towards meeting sustainability goals, a process that could also help improve the U.S.-China relationship. As China continues to expand its foreign investment in developing and emerging countries through programs such as its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), it becomes increasingly important to assess the benefit and risk tradeoffs as countries face infrastructure decisions that could substantially increase their fossil fuel consumption.

“While China is the largest contributor to carbon emissions today, going forward the most important issue in addressing climate change will be what type of energy and infrastructure investments the Chinese government is supporting in other countries,” Lewis said.

The project on “Broadening the US-China Climate Lens: Exploring New Opportunities to Accelerate Energy Transformation in Third Countries” aims to bring a small expert group of rising policy-oriented scholars from the United States and China to third countries where there is significant Chinese overseas investment in the energy sector to examine these projects and meet with local stakeholders. Scholars will be tasked with understanding China’s role in these third countries and the impact of their energy investments, as well as devising solutions to the challenges that face rising emitters.

Lewis at the U.S. Department of State with participants from the U.S.-China Research Group on Climate Change in 2017
Lewis at the U.S. Department of State with participants from the U.S.-China Research Group on Climate Change in 2017

“Doing this alongside Chinese colleagues allows you to get a less one-sided perspective, and take a more comprehensive look at the situation in other countries,” Lewis explained, describing the importance of understanding the impact of Chinese foreign investment through its BRI.

Lewis will lead the research portion of the project and is partnering with the Center for American Progress to lead a parallel U.S.-China dialogue component. Together, they aim to provide opportunities for the delegation members to reflect on what they are learning and how those lessons might be applied towards tangible policy decisions.

The new project builds on the work Lewis has done as a co-leader of the U.S.-China Research Group on Climate Change (2016-2017) and the U.S.-China Energy and Climate Cooperation Working Group (2018-2020), both part of the Georgetown University Initiative on U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues. This award will enable her and colleagues to forge and maintain the relationships with experts in China that are so vital to successful integration of long-term sustainability goals.

“There is a really tight-knit community of people working on U.S.-China climate and energy cooperation in both countries, and I would hate to see four or eight years of nonengagement dissolve all of those relationships that have taken so long to build,” remarked Lewis.

I think you need relationships and trust to do real collaboration, and I think these sorts of dialogues and collaborative research projects are extremely important to keep people talking from both countries, both inside and outside the government.

Student researchers at the undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral level will be encouraged to apply for positions with the project, allowing them to expand their understanding of and impact on an increasingly global issue.

“Climate change is really about global technology decisions and global innovation in clean energy technologies, and China plays a huge role in shaping key energy technology outcomes,” Lewis said.