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Both U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping made important pledges at the Leaders Summit on Climate in Washington in April. Biden promised that the United States would reach net-zero carbon emissions by no later than 2050; Xi reiterated China’s commitment to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060 (an ambitious target) and insisted that China would begin to cut its coal-fired power generation by 2030. These positive announcements from the leaders of the two biggest carbon polluters—together accounting for around 40 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions—were encouraging ahead of the critically important UN climate talks in Glasgow in November.
As an issue of human survival, climate change requires global coordination even in the face of geopolitical tensions. It demands exactly the kind of international leadership and solidarity that the Trump administration rejected. The Biden administration has so far sought to chart a different course from that of its predecessor, one that stresses the importance of climate diplomacy and negotiation.
But some policymakers and analysts in the United States argue that it is folly to cooperate with China on climate change. Washington, they contend, should not be suckered into believing that Beijing will sacrifice its economic and political ambitions on the altar of emission reduction. In Foreign Affairs, Andrew Erickson and Gabriel Collins (“Competition With China Can Save the Planet,” May/June 2021) describe China’s climate commitments as little more than hot air. “Serious decarbonization remains a distant prospect,” they write. “Xi’s bullish talk of combating climate change is a smokescreen for a more calculated agenda.”
That agenda supposedly involves making “the United States and other countries supplicants” by extracting “concessions in other domains” for China’s participation in climate negotiations. Erickson and Collins argue that cooperation with China is a fool’s game and that instead the United States should embrace competition. Only a more aggressive stance will force China to mend its ways: a Washington-led global system of carbon border taxes will compel Beijing to seriously cut its emissions.
China does indeed need to take more concerted action in reducing its greenhouse gas emissions and its dependence on carbon-intensive industries and energy sources. But a climate policy centered on confrontation will not produce the necessary changes. Eschewing diplomacy will only make Beijing more intransigent, fail to support progressive actors within China, and further drive a wedge between wealthy countries and poorer ones. And in forsaking cooperation with China, U.S. officials will miss an opportunity to demonstrate badly needed leadership in rising to the challenge of the century.
Erickson and Collins’s very premise—that China will hold climate change diplomacy hostage to its pursuit of other goals—is misguided. Despite occasional rhetoric to that effect, there is little evidence that China’s climate action is, in fact, predicated on winning reciprocal concessions from others. Since Biden took office, his administration has continued to challenge China’s activities in the South China Sea, renewed its security commitments to Taiwan, and ratcheted up sanctions on China over its abuses in Xinjiang. None of these actions stopped China from agreeing to a joint statement with U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry in Shanghai in April, in which Beijing and Washington declared themselves “committed to cooperating with each other” on climate to promote a successful summit in Glasgow. If anything, that statement suggested that climate diplomacy can push China to express its environmental commitments in even stronger terms: the statement referred to fossil fuel as “carbon-intensive” and climate change as a “crisis,” characterizations not used before in Chinese official documents.
Relations between China and the European Union are also as rocky as ever, after the bloc engaged in a bitter row with China over its treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. The spat culminated in March in new EU sanctions on China, which cast a pall over an investment treaty that Brussels and Beijing had agreed to in principle in December 2020. Despite these tensions, Xi indicated during a video summit in April with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel that China would accept important international agreements to phase down the production of climate-warming refrigerants.
China has taken these steps because its commitment to climate action is motivated primarily by self-interest. Elite political institutions in China have published national climate change assessments since the first decade of this century. They recognize the country’s vulnerability to the consequences of a warming planet. China’s major economic hubs are highly exposed to changing coastlines and rising sea levels. Unreliable rainfall for irrigation, soaring numbers of agricultural pests, hotter summers, and earlier and shorter growing seasons threaten food security in China—a central political concern. Moreover, Chinese policymakers recognize that climate action aligns with their domestic economic priorities. Transitioning to a greener economy could allow China to become the industry leader in clean technologies, move the economy from low-cost production toward innovation, and help clear the choking air pollution that has caused unrest in many cities.
Beijing made these imperatives clear when it placed renewable energy and electric vehicles at the heart of its “Made in China 2025” plan, a strategy for upgrading the country’s high-tech manufacturing sector that the Trump administration considered a threat to the U.S. economy. Such state-led initiatives have helped jump-start China’s green technology sectors. China is now a world leader in the production of solar panels and electric vehicle batteries and consistently overperforms its targets for renewable energy deployment.
China should not only grow its green economy, of course, but cut its “brown” economy—and it does need to do more to reduce its coal-fired power generation. China’s latest five-year plan should have included a stronger commitment to decarbonization. But world powers won’t win that commitment through direct confrontation on climate. Hostility has proven counterproductive in past negotiations, most notably at the UN-led Copenhagen talks in 2009, when a misreading of diplomatic protocol led to a catastrophic collapse: Western countries, including the Danish hosts, assumed that they could push China to negotiate a last-minute deal, a presumption that proved wrong and led to years of recriminations.
As Erickson and Collins rightly point out, the Chinese government is not monolithic: it is a fragmented system with many competing institutions. Turning the juggernaut of carbon-heavy growth around involves a push-and-pull between powerful lobbies at central and local levels. For example, in January, the central environmental inspection agency condemned the National Energy Administration, a body that drafts laws and regulations concerning energy development, for failing to align the coal power sector with national guidelines.
China also has recently introduced tougher measures on polluting industries. In March, authorities in the city of Tangshan threatened to force steel manufacturers to cut production by as much as 50 percent if they continue to fall afoul of environmental codes. Chinese officials imposed limits on aluminum smelting in Inner Mongolia and relocated plants to regions with greater renewable energy resources for power. The central government is about to launch a national emission-trading scheme for the energy sector that will reward energy generators that are more efficient and emit less carbon. The country’s financial regulators have recently tightened definitions of “green debt”—bonds issued to support environmentally friendly enterprises—to lower the risk of so-called greenwashing, where polluting industries brand themselves as “green” for cosmetic purposes. They are also working with the EU to establish a common global catalog for sustainable finance that would boost international capital flows into green technologies.
Skeptics deride support for progressive actors in China—whether green-leaning factions or niche industries looking to unseat carbon-heavy incumbents—as naive or even as a kind of appeasement. But the alternative—a belligerent approach toward Beijing that frames the climate as one of a number of foreign policy issues to be traded off against others—makes addressing climate change vulnerable to the changing tides of geopolitical tensions.
Climate change is unique among collective-action problems in foreign policy because of how the share of historical responsibility can be quantified. Developed countries—whose industrialization during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was powered mainly by fossil fuels—account for a larger share of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that is warming the planet today than developing countries. The United States and Europe alone generated almost half of all carbon dioxide emitted since 1850. China and India account for only 12 percent and three percent of the emissions during the same period, respectively.
Many of the world’s poorest and most climate-vulnerable countries face a dire situation in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The demand shock caused by lockdowns in rich countries hit many developing economies reliant on commodity exports. For many poor countries, the pandemic has been an economic crisis and a debt crisis as much as it has been a health crisis.
In forsaking cooperation with China, U.S. officials will miss an opportunity to demonstrate badly needed leadership.
Their struggles could provide a rallying point for a cleaner, greener global economic recovery. Investment in sectors shaped by the changing patterns of trade and investment in the wake of the pandemic—sectors such as clean energy, agriculture, and transportation—offers an opportunity to prioritize low-carbon, resilient, and sustainable approaches to development. Yet rich countries are already failing to meet their 2015 pledges to mobilize $100 billion annually to support climate action in the global South.
This means that the United States has little moral standing to reject demands for greater climate action and public finance to support climate-vulnerable countries. Unless the United States can demonstrate solidarity with the poor countries that are most at risk, China can cast itself as a defender of the developing world, relying on its familiar invocation of “common but differentiated responsibilities”—the notion that Western countries have to take on a greater part of the burden of reducing global emissions—rather than supporting a collective push for more ambitious decarbonization.
In practice, a carbon border tax would target a small number of emission-intensive commodities. The EU’s proposed carbon border adjustment mechanism, not expected to be implemented until 2023, is likely to cover only energy-intensive sectors, including steel, chemicals, and cement; determining the carbon footprint of consumer products such as electronics or automobiles, made of multiple components with long supply chains, would be far more difficult. The EU’s proposal has led to talk of “carbon clubs,” groups of countries with carbon border taxes, but these would be counterproductive, driving a further wedge in international climate negotiations, which already suffer from a dearth of trust.
Erickson and Collins claim that a carbon border tax would “bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States.” One imposed on steel might bring jobs back to the United States, but probably not from China. Brazil accounts for 18 percent of U.S. steel imports and does not have a carbon-pricing mechanism in place. Chinese steel makes up two percent of U.S. steel imports, and China has put a carbon price, albeit a limited one for now, on its energy sector. A prerequisite of a U.S. carbon border adjustment tax would be a price on carbon emissions at the federal level, in the form of either a tax or a system for trading emission permits. In the current political climate, Congress is unlikely to pass either proposal.
Instead of dismissing China’s climate pledges as insincere or accusing China of inaction, the United States should lead by example. Competition is healthy but should not be confused with protectionism. Greater public investment in the research, development, and deployment of clean, green technologies is certainly warranted, but U.S. officials must also remember the pressing importance of solidarity; fulfilling U.S. climate finance pledges to developing countries would allow the United States to deal with China, in the words of Secretary of State Antony Blinken, “from a position of strength.” A U.S.-led effort to rally G-7 nations to fulfill their climate finance pledges to developing countries would allow the United States and its allies to engage China in that way.
This is a critical year for the future of the UN climate convention. Five years after the signing of the Paris agreement on climate change, the pathway to keep the rising global temperature at 1.5 degrees Celsius below preindustrial levels looks ever harder to achieve. In his closing comments at the April summit, Biden asked, “Is there anything else you can think of that could create as many good jobs by the middle of the twenty-first century . . . while doing so much good?” To lead a global transition toward carbon neutrality, the United States needs to spur a race to the top in developing new green technology and creating new markets. The United States won’t get there by picking a fight with China.
SAM GEALL is Acting CEO of China Dialogue and an Associate Fellow at Chatham House.
REBECCA PETERS is Leland Foundation Association of Marshall Scholars Transatlantic Academy Fellow at Chatham House.
BYFORD TSANG is Senior Policy Adviser at the think tank E3G.
Sam Geall, Rebecca Peters, and Byford Tsang offer an idealistic exhortation for U.S.-Chinese climate cooperation. What they miss, however, is that Beijing’s quest for geopolitical leverage overrides its concern for the climate. In April, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi admitted as much, saying, “The United States cannot repeatedly challenge China’s rights and interests on issues related to Taiwan, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong while expecting China to cooperate with it on issues it cares about.”
Wang’s requirement for upfront concessions merely to preserve the possibility of future emission reductions exploits foreign naiveté, which is in abundant supply. On July 8, 48 progressive groups sent a letter to the White House and Congress calling on Washington to prioritize climate cooperation over the security threats created by China’s own actions.
Those inclined to kowtow to Beijing should first do the coal math. Although senior officials in the Chinese Communist Party talk a big game about green energy and climate diplomacy, their domestic actions are on track to lock in 100 billion additional metric tons of coal burning by 2045–60. This contradiction underscores the CCP’s paramount interest: domestic political survival, which depends on keeping the engines of industrial growth humming. That, in turn, requires a massive portion of total global coal use—nearly 55 percent in 2020.
At more than four billion metric tons per year, China’s current coal habit portends a dire climate future. According to the research firm Rhodium Group, China’s emissions of the six key greenhouse gases covered by the Kyoto Protocol—carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, and sulfur hexafluoride—already exceed the emissions of all developed countries combined. China was the only major industrial power whose emissions actually rose during the 2020 global pandemic-induced recession, as policymakers leaned on king coal to power industrial recovery.
Beijing’s quest for geopolitical leverage overrides its concern for the climate.
Beijing reaches quickly for coal to dial up economic output but will likely move much more slowly to reduce its reliance on it—particularly as growth slows or sputters in the coming years. Internationally, China seeks to goad the United States and the EU into serving as the industrial crash-test dummies for aggressive decarbonization, encouraging them to cut emissions unilaterally and take the resulting economic hit. Domestically, Chinese leaders face costs and disruptions inherent in transitioning a colossal energy system that is 50 percent bigger than that of the United States.
Using data from the China Electricity Council, we estimate that replacing ten percent of China’s coal-fired power plants with nuclear energy would require more than triple the nuclear capacity it has slated to enter service by 2026. Replacing ten percent of coal with renewables could require China to install nearly as much wind capacity as it has built cumulatively to date, or more than 1.5 times as much solar capacity as it has built. Only true leverage can make Beijing pursue such a heavy lift.
Geall, Peters, and Tsang seem to take the CCP at its word and believe that outsiders will benefit by negotiating with its leadership on climate. But when foreign supplicants collide with the CCP’s self-interest, they will pay with both upfront concessions and wasted time, during which critical climate systems could be pushed beyond the point of no return. Real progress on climate change requires fundamentally shifting the CCP’s calculus by altering the economic bottom line on which its power hinges. Climate competition—and threatening carbon taxation in particular—is the only Archimedean lever powerful enough to incentivize a timely transformation.
Climate competition would curtail China’s latitude for geopolitical exploitation and empower sidelined reformers. Crucially, it could also anchor the bipartisan domestic support necessary for Washington to remain a reliable long-term climate leader. No silver bullet exists, but the cooperation that Geall, Peters, and Tsang advocate is a fanciful remedy. Competition offers the most viable pathway to preserving the atmosphere and oceans for future generations.
ANDREW S. ERICKSON is Professor of Strategy at the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute and a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies.
GABRIEL COLLINS is Baker Botts Fellow in Energy and Environmental Regulatory Affairs at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and a Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies.
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