China Power | Environment | East Asia

The China Climate Challenge

What are the prospects for renewed U.S.-China cooperation on climate issues?

By Scott Moore for
The China Climate Challenge
Credit: Pixabay

Recent studies showing that two of Antarctica’s largest glaciers are close to collapse, likely triggering some 10 feet of sea level rise, are a sobering reminder that the world is nearly out of time to prevent catastrophic climate change. If elected president of the United States, Joe Biden has been clear that tackling climate change will be a top priority, and his plan to do so has been widely praised by environmentalists. But one of the reasons climate change is so hard to solve is that it requires deep commitment not just from one country, but from many. That’s especially true of China, the world’s largest emitter, without which it is impossible to truly tackle the world’s climate crisis.

For that reason, many commentators argue that despite growing tensions between the United States and China, it’s essential to preserve diplomatic space to cooperate on climate change. Unfortunately, that will be much harder than it sounds. China’s leaders are likely to be receptive to the idea of climate cooperation with Washington – but not necessarily on terms that are favorable to U.S. foreign policy interests, and almost certainly not on terms that equal the scale of the climate crisis.

During the Obama administration, U.S.-China cooperation on climate change was often referred to as the “bright spot” in otherwise largely contentious relations. Under President Donald Trump, the relationship has gone from bad to worse, and Washington’s disengagement from international climate issues scuttled the best example of the world’s two largest economies working together to tackle global challenges. Since then, Beijing has continued to trumpet its “active participation in addressing global challenges such as climate change” mostly before America’s European allies. China has signaled, however, that it hasn’t entirely given up on restoring a bright spot to bilateral relations with the United States. In a speech to U.S. think tanks this past July, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi cited climate change among several issues where the United States and China could “work together and contribute.” China’s top leaders, meanwhile, have telegraphed a continued determination to reduce China’s contribution to climate change, with President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang proclaiming both personal commitment to the issue and a determination that “low-carbon development” is crucial to China’s future economic growth.

Yet despite its optimistic tone, Wang’s speech also highlighted the political challenges of getting the United States and China to work together on climate change. Soon after naming climate change as a promising area for cooperation, Wang went on to propose a plan to separate issues where dialogue might be possible between Washington and Beijing from those where talking would be fruitless – a distinction that some commentators, especially on the right, read as making cooperation on issues like climate change contingent on staying quiet on matters like human rights. While such implied tradeoffs have always vexed U.S.-China relations, the implication of a Faustian bargain on climate will likely weigh on U.S. policymakers contemplating outreach to China on climate change. At a minimum, it seems set to ensure that U.S.-China climate cooperation will remain a partisan, rather than consensus, aspect of U.S. foreign policy.

For China, meanwhile, domestic political and economic factors are likely to constrain the ambition of its climate initiatives in the near term. Despite large-scale investment in renewable energy and considerable success in improving energy efficiency, China’s total emissions have continued to grow, and Beijing has so far avoided making any commitments to reduce them in absolute terms. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what recent data show must be done for the world to avoid dangerous climate change. Recent indications are that, at least for the moment, post-pandemic economic recovery must take priority over this imperative. Li, for example, has suggested that jobs must, at least for now, take precedence over environmental protection, and Beijing has approved construction of several new coal plants, seemingly indicating a continued dependence on fossil fuels rather than carbon-free energy. These political economy considerations, for China as well as the United States, both frame and complicate three major approaches to future climate cooperation.

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The first such approach is to hold Xi himself to account on his claims to be a climate champion. If, under a Biden administration, the United States again attempts to lead a coalition of countries willing to adopt ambitious climate commitments, it will be in a strong position to pressure Xi to accept absolute emissions cuts. In concert with its European and other allies, Washington can cite Xi’s own words to seek pledges to phase out fossil fuel use within China, and to eliminate financing for fossil fuel infrastructure abroad. But time is short to do so. The best opportunity to secure such commitments would be in advance of the next United Nations climate conference, currently scheduled for November 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland. This timeline would also coincide with the roll-out of China’s next five-year plan, which traditionally serves as the primary guide for policy, including in climate and energy. Moreover, this approach needs to be pursued with a deft touch; while the aim is fundamentally to apply pressure, there is a fine line between persuading and cajoling, especially when it comes to China’s top leader. This won’t be easy to straddle, especially when Washington will likely also be confronting Xi on issues like human rights and the South China Sea.

The second approach to re-engaging with China on climate change is to appeal to its economic self-interest. Xi and other senior officials have stressed repeatedly that a more innovative, cleaner development model is essential for China’s future growth. Its unparalleled manufacturing economies of scale mean that, in principle, it should have a major advantage in producing the solar panels, electric vehicles, and other technologies that the world will need to wean itself off fossil fuels more cheaply than other countries. Relatively lax land use planning regulations and constrained public opposition also appear to favor development of technologies like carbon capture, sequestration, and utilization. In exchange for accepting absolute and verifiable emissions reductions and commitments in areas like intellectual property protection, the United States and other major economies might agree to adopt preferential trade policies for Chinese-manufactured clean technologies, or to work with international financial institutions to scale up financing for their deployment in in developing nations that might otherwise build new fossil fuel infrastructure. Either approach, however, would likely face political opposition from Republicans and many Democrats as being too averse to America’s economic interests while being too favorable to China’s.

A third approach, likely more appealing to the growing number of China hawks on both ends of the U.S. political spectrum, is to forego the use of carrots in favor of sticks. These could include carbon border tax adjustments on Chinese imports like those proposed by the European Union (EU) and in Biden’s own economic plan, which would essentially calculate import tariffs on the basis of how much carbon dioxide is embedded in imported goods. To be effective without disproportionately harming the U.S. economy, such adjustments would need to be coordinated with the EU and other major economies. At the same time, the United States and like-minded countries could seek other ways of pressuring China to adopt ambitious climate commitments, such as highlighting the negative effects of coal-fired power plants on human health and livelihoods in the poorest countries. Finally, the United States could redouble its commitment to breakthrough technology research and development through initiatives like Mission Innovation and the proposed bipartisan Endless Frontier Act, aiming to foster a healthy competition with China on clean technologies. The problem with these hardball tactics is that they might backfire, causing China to sit out any new global deal on emissions, with dangerous consequences for the climate.

Of all the daunting challenges that would confront a Biden administration, climate change is arguably the most dependent on international collective action. As the world’s largest single source of carbon emissions, China’s willingness to cut a deal on climate change will effectively make or break any Biden administration climate policy. Yet the hard truth is that, at least for the moment, counting on China’s willingness to cooperate on climate looks like a risky bet. Changing this calculus, and securing China’s commitment to dramatically slash its emissions, will require deft and decisive leadership from the Biden administration. If it really wants to tackle climate change, it must begin thinking carefully about how to fashion a strategy to engage China that takes account of politics on both sides of the Pacific.

Scott Moore is Senior Fellow at the Water Center at Penn and Lecturer in the Department of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania. He previously handled U.S. – China climate issues at the U.S. Department of State and served as a U.S. delegate to the 2015 Paris climate conference.