For the world’s climate activists, the last half of 2020 has been both the best and the worst of times. Even as the pandemic raged, at the September meeting of the United Nations General Assembly Chinese leader Xi Jinping unexpectedly pledged to make the world’s second-largest economy carbon neutral by 2060. Weeks later, Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, one-upped Beijing by pledging to do the same thing, but 10 years earlier. And in early November, the American people elected Joe Biden president on by far the most ambitious climate policy platform ever put forward by the world’s largest economy.
Less encouragingly, the same period also brought an unrelenting stream of bad news on the state of the world’s climate: In September scientists reported that two of Antarctica’s largest glaciers were close to collapse, threatening several meters of additional sea level rise; in early October five tropical cyclones formed in the Atlantic Ocean for only the second time in recorded history; and just weeks later came the heartbreaking report that half the Great Barrier Reef’s corals have died off just since 1995.
This mixed picture leaves the world standing at a familiar crossroads. In the face of rapidly-accumulating evidence of an impending climate catastrophe, the world’s major economies, buoyed by political change in the United States, look ready to finally take serious steps to cut greenhouse gas emissions. But there have been false hopes before, in the mid-1990s, when the U.S., then the world’s largest emitter, declined to ratify the Kyoto Protocol; in the late 2000s, when major climate legislation stalled in the U.S. Congress; and in the mid-2010s, when the conclusion of the Paris Agreement failed to shift policy and markets as much as its architects hoped, in part because the U.S. once again took a hard political turn against climate action and dismantled its climate policy.
Will this time be different?
In one very important respect, the answer is clearly yes. Each previous period of hope for ambitious climate action depended on the United States’ willingness to back international cooperation on climate change, and a robust regulatory regime to underpin it. This time, though, is decidedly different. Ambitious climate action, like Beijing’s and Tokyo’s seemingly dueling carbon pledges, is increasingly driven not by a vision of cooperation, but one of geopolitical competition. This conceptual shift is matched by a tactical one: Instead of an emphasis on domestic regulatory sticks to drive down greenhouse gas emissions, the focus is moving to one more focused on carrots to promote technological innovation and development – the better to compete with would-be rivals.
The world still needs a healthy dose of cooperation and regulation to tackle climate change. But the new geopolitics that now shape climate policy offers renewed hope that this time, major economies might finally produce a durable plan to tackle the climate crisis. These new dynamics are especially important given the accelerating impacts of climate change, which make it increasingly clear the world will not only have to slash its carbon emissions, but eventually take more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere than it puts in.
In another key break with the past, it’s now China, not the United States, that stands at the center of the new geopolitics of climate change. While America’s fickle domestic politics have historically been the fulcrum on which international climate plans teetered, they now turn on the world’s reaction to the rise of China.