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Progress and Challenges for the U.S. and China at the Leaders Summit on Climate

May 04, 2021

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From April 22-23, world leaders met at the virtual Leaders Summit on Climate to present their proposals for addressing climate change. The meeting most notably saw the U.S. shift away from its denialist stance under the Trump administration, with President Biden pledging that the U.S. would cut its carbon emissions in half by 2030. Japan, Canada, and Brazil also deepened their own targets, while China avoided new commitments but suggested that it would begin to move away from coal power in the near future. The summit underlined two contradictory tendencies: 1. Growing political pressure and momentum, particularly in the developed world, to make substantive cuts to emissions; and 2. An enduring shortfall of material aid to enable the developing world to transition to clean energy, along with a shortage of political will in key economies like China. 

Of all the participating countries at the summit, the U.S. made perhaps the most dramatic shift in their stances. The Trump administration made climate change denialism a hallmark of its policy, leaving the Paris Agreement less than five months into its term and slashing environmental regulations. The Biden administration has arrived in office with the stated objective of “restoring U.S. global leadership,” with climate change policy playing a key role in its wider diplomatic initiatives. To that end, the new pledge to slash emissions by over 50% in the next decade is a much more significant step than the U.S.’s Obama-era pledges. Cuts of this magnitude would give humanity a much better chance of averting the utter catastrophe of 2 degrees Celsius or more of warming by the end of the century. But the real challenge is not to announce new targets. As Greenpeace UK’s Kate Blagojevic commented: “Targets, on their own, won’t lead to emissions cuts. That takes real policy and money. And that’s where the whole world is still way off course.” 

Here the U.S. has a real problem: itself. There is a certain sad irony in seeing prominent American publications declaring that Biden’s “real test” is steering the rest of the world into taking action. While Biden may genuinely wish to slash emissions, Congress remains as deadlocked and ineffectual as ever. The substantial investment needed to upgrade infrastructure, decommission old plants, build green energy generation, and phase out fossil fuel-using vehicles can only come from Congress. In the Senate in particular, this requires navigating the web of oil and gas, agribusiness, and Wall Street money that has made such change nigh impossible in the past. The limit to the Biden administration’s commitment to slash emissions may prove to be how far it can stretch executive power to force change without going through Congress. To put the issue into the clearest possible terms: How is an institution that couldn’t manage a modest minimum wage increase supposed to tackle the greatest challenge humanity has yet faced? 

Many observers were curious to see what stance China would take at the summit. As the date approached, the Chinese government offered little in the way of signals that it would make new pledges to cut emissions. When President Xi Jinping spoke, he did indicate that China would try to reduce its coal use in the latter half of the decade, which would be a positive development. China’s dependence on coal as the new ‘workshop of the world’ has made it the world’s top producer of emissions, an unenviable distinction once held by the U.S. 

On the sidelines, Chinese diplomats signaled that the country could be willing to join new emissions treaties with the U.S. if the U.S. were to stop meddling in its “internal affairs.” While the strategic impulse here is understandable—the CCP sees climate talks as a source of leverage with Biden—it is rather misguided. American hardliners are more than happy to paint China as the real villain on climate change, just as they are happy to cynically weaponize real issues like Hong Kong and Xinjiang to push the U.S. toward a military confrontation with China. These hardliners are not just Biden’s opponents in Congress, but are also represented within the administration and bureaucracy. Linking these two sets of issues diplomatically only makes it less likely that real progress will be made on either front, and failing to slow climate change will hurt China just as much as it will hurt the U.S. Even if this stance is a maneuvering strategy for China to secure a few more years of coal-powered growth, it would still be misguided. To use the COVID-19 pandemic as a metaphor: ignoring an obvious problem to “save growth now” can only lead to even greater catastrophe and economic devastation later. The pandemic was only a temporary supply shock; runaway climate change would be permanent. 

One challenge that has yet to be appropriately addressed is the issue of financing for developing countries to cut their own emissions. At the Paris Agreement in 2016, the world’s richest countries pledged to provide $100 billion per year to help developing countries make the energy transition by 2020. Even this target is too small, and still it has yet to be met. Developing nations were hit extremely hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, with many facing debt and currency crises as capital fled peripheral economies to the relative safety of the core. It is completely unreasonable to expect real investment in a green energy transition when these countries are facing declining standards of living and struggling to meet debt payments. It therefore falls on the countries who have developed through massive carbon emissions—the U.S. and China first and foremost—to provide debt relief and aid where it is needed most. Without this aid, any progress made in the richest nations will be offset by rising emissions in the rest of the world. Existing U.S. spending of roughly $6 billion per year still falls woefully short of what is needed here. 

Altogether, the Leaders Summit on Climate provided some indications of potential progress that desperately need to be translated into real action in the attending nations. New targets are all fine and good, but the key is policy and investment. The U.S. and China have the potential to lead here, but we are still a long way from the decisive steps that are required to rescue our species from catastrophe. It is particularly concerning to see climate issues reframed as a bargaining chip within the wider sphere of U.S.-China strategic competition. The world can withstand more years of brinkmanship and posturing in the politico-military arena, but it cannot withstand more years of dithering on climate change. This is an area where strategic competition needs to be shelved once and for all.

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