Saturday, December 4, 2021

What US-China Tensions Mean to Combat Climate Change

Six years ago, an unprecedented level of cooperation between the United States and China laid the foundation for the Paris Climate Agreement, a milestone in the fight against global warming.

But as the final preparations for this week’s international summits draw to a close, that partnership has been shaken. Dialogue between the two superpowers has been clouded by tensions over trade, allegations of human rights violations and security concerns – not to mention the domestic political and economic challenges facing both countries that make it difficult to work together.

Their strained relationship will be showcased at the G20 Forum for World Leaders in Rome, starting Saturday, and at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, starting the next day. President Biden plans to attend both events in person, while Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to attend virtually.

Some experts and policymakers fear that tensions between them will jeopardize progress on climate change at a time when the catastrophic effects of rising temperatures are becoming more evident than ever. Others note that Beijing has shown a willingness to act independently of US coordination, and they hope that competition between the two powers could be a positive race to the top, as each strives to outperform the other in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

What is clear, however, is that the dynamics of US-China relations have changed dramatically over the past few years. “We live in a completely different era,” said Tom Woodroof, a fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute and a former climate diplomat.

On the eve of the 2015 Paris summit, talks between Washington and Beijing resulted in a joint statement that “completely changed the rules of the game,” Woodroof said. This indicates that for the first time, China is ready to strike a deal that has a cascading effect, instilling confidence in other countries that progress can be made, he said.

This time, Beijing has rolled out a series of climate announcements that appear to be timed to make it seem like China is making changes due to US pressure. While diplomats from both countries remain in close contact, the question is whether they can encourage the rest of the world to increase its ambitions without a united front of their own.

“There is no solution to the climate problem unless the US and China are moving in the same direction,” said Nathaniel Keohan, president of the Climate and Energy Solutions Center.

Solar panels cover hills in China in 2019.

(Sam McNeill / Associated Press) #

Currently, no country is doing enough to help meet the target of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Although China is a leading supplier of solar and wind energy and electric vehicles, it is the world’s main source of greenhouse gases and its largest consumer of coal.

Xi announced last year that China would achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, but the country has no plans to stop cutting emissions until 2030. Just last month, he announced that his government would stop funding coal-fired power plants around the world.

The United States emits more greenhouse gases per capita than any other country. Biden wants the US to cut emissions from 50% to 52% from 2005 levels by 2030, but he is struggling to pass legislation that could deliver on his promises.

Many Chinese observers are skeptical about whether the United States will be able to see it through, especially after former President Trump gave up on climate change, said Li Shuo, senior climate and energy policy officer at Greenpeace China.

“The US is not very credible, and this is not a temporary problem,” Lee said. “It’s systemic.”

However, he said, US involvement could still play a role. He noted a shift in the way the two countries described their role in this year’s joint statement on tackling climate change: the document no longer mentions “shared but differentiated responsibilities” – a term used to place a greater burden on reducing emissions in the wealthy countries.

“In a sense, China is saying, ‘Okay, we can take on, at least diplomatically, we are ready to take on more responsibility,” Li said. He also said China probably would not have made a commitment to end foreign funding for coal-fired power plants without US involvement – although Beijing ostentatiously waited until September to announce it, rather than at a virtual summit hosted by Biden in April.

China is expected to release further domestic climate change mitigation plans this week and announce its short- and long-term commitments at COP26, the acronym for the Glasgow summit. Climate advocates are hoping China will push the date of its peak carbon emissions to 2025, push the carbon neutral deadline to 2050, and announce emissions caps. But it is unlikely that Beijing will agree to all of this, especially if it could mean any kind of worship of the United States.

President Biden in the truck.

President Biden tested a Ford electric pickup during a trip to Michigan in May.

(Evan Vucci / Associated Press) #

The Biden administration has sought to bring China to the climate issue as a separate issue, despite sky-high disagreements between the two powers over a range of other issues, including technology, trade, and the origins of the coronavirus. Biden chose former Secretary of State John Kerry as his global climate envoy, and Xi named Xie Zhenhua as his colleague. The two seasoned diplomats have worked closely in the past and have spoken nearly two dozen times this year.

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However, the situation changed dramatically after the United States and China coordinated their actions before Paris. American politicians are more skeptical of China’s global ambitions. They are increasingly concerned about Beijing’s aggressive stance toward Taiwan, an island democracy that China sees as a breakaway province, and toward the South China Sea, a key trade route.

Beijing has tried to use the climate as a bargaining chip, complaining that the US should not ask for cooperation on climate, pressuring China on issues such as human rights, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi said last month that climate cooperation could be an “oasis” in US-China relations, “but if this oasis is surrounded by desert, it will also become empty sooner or later.”

The Biden administration has said it will not compromise on other issues for deeper climate cooperation. In January, Kerry called climate cooperation “a critical issue in its own right” and insisted that China’s other concerns “will never be sold on anything to do with climate.”

But human rights activists are concerned that the Biden administration has since softened its tone, especially in the Xinjiang region, where more than a million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities have been detained for “re-education” as part of a cultural assimilation campaign, according to UN groups and researchers. China denies the accusations and says its camps were professional centers designed to fight terrorism and poverty.

The United States has declared that China is committing genocide in Xinjiang and has imposed sanctions on Chinese officials and companies involved in the oppression of minorities there. This includes sanctions on solar panel materials that are manufactured in Xinjiang and include forced Uyghur labor, according to U.S. and human rights groups.

Republican lawmakers have accused the Biden administration of delaying a bipartisan forced Uyghur labor bill that was passed by the Senate but stalled in the House of Representatives.

Asked about human rights in China at a House Climate Change hearing in May, Kerry said, “This is not my lane. My line is very specific to try to get the Chinese to do what we need to do with the climate itself. ” He added that China produces 72% of all solar panels in the world and is the world’s leading manufacturer of solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicles and lithium-ion batteries.

Two people in the formal room.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang arrive at the 110th anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution at the Great People’s Hall in Beijing October 9.

(Andy Wong / Associated Press) #

Woodrowfe, a fellow of the Asian Society, said a larger source of pressure on China could come from developing countries most vulnerable to climate change.

An important part of China’s assertive foreign policy under Xi has been acting as the leader of the developing world against the United States and its allies. Many countries in which Beijing is investing under the Belt and Road Initiative have voted alongside China in the UN General Assembly on issues such as Hong Kong and Xinjiang. But now they want China to do more to combat climate change.

“For many of these countries, their survival, frankly, depends on the global struggle for climate, and Beijing holds the greatest keys to the success or failure of this struggle,” he said. “It has changed the perception of China by many countries.”

Climate experts continue to hope that global warming can be considered a neutral ground for US-China cooperation, especially in the field of scientific research. Significant advances are still needed in technologies such as storage and transmission of clean energy.

“The world is really missing out on a great opportunity when the # 1 and # 2 leaders in science and technology cannot partner with each other without deep suspicion,” said David Victor, professor of innovation and public policy at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at UC San -Diego.

Sam Gill, an expert on China and climate policy at the University of Sussex, said Washington and Beijing needed to find a way to work together to combat global warming, just as Washington and Moscow worked together to curb nuclear proliferation during the Cold War.

“It has a similar existential quality,” he said. “And this needs to be taken seriously.”

Megerian reported from Washington and Su from Beijing.

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