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Race to Net Zero

Sep 20, 2023
  • Peter Sies

    Master, School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University

The planet is heating up: The global average temperature in July 2023 surpassed the record for Earth's previously hottest documented day. The global heatwave this summer didn’t spare the two most powerful countries. In China, Xinjiang province recorded a new temperature record at 52.2°C. Concurrently; the U.S. saw more than 2,300 heat records being broken under a vast heat dome that tormented people from Florida to California. The striking image of Manhattan blanketed in an orange haze caused by Canadian wildfires captured global attention. 

Action by the two superpowers is direly needed. The People’s Republic is responsible for 27 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions and accounts for half of the world’s coal consumption, with ongoing plans to build even more coal power plants. Conversely, the U.S. ranked as the 12th largest per-capita CO2 emitter in 2021 (surpassed by a group primarily consistent with petrostates). Historically, the U.S. remains the most significant cumulative per-capita CO2 contributor worldwide. 

Amid a world in climate distress, recent developments in Sino-American relations might have provided a glimmer of hope to some international observers. John Kerry, the U.S. climate envoy, visited Beijing between the 16th and the 19th of July to meet with Chinese Premier Li Qiang and other high-ranking Chinese officials. This came after a talk pause following Nancy Pelosi's Taiwan visit the previous year. 

This hope seems misguided– it is highly improbable that Sino-American relations can find common ground for large-scale cooperation. 

COPs and treaties have too long served as fig leaves for unaspiring climate policy. The fragmented domain of primarily non-binding international environmental law hasn’t spurred meaningful climate action. A neorealist zeitgeist seems to prevent any meaningful solution through cooperation. States only put up a cooperative façade, yet they hesitate to take assertive action fearing relative power losses. 

The same logic dims any prospects for Sino-American climate talks, as climate policy can hardly be insulated from great power rivalry. Both nations likely deem climate action subordinate to their relative position in their competitive relation. Under this assumption, cooperation can only work if both countries simultaneously regard the outcome of any agreement as relatively more beneficial to them than their adversary – which is improbable to occur. The two great powers in the international system are hence unlikely to bilaterally restrain themselves to any binding emission target amid growing tensions. 

Probably, the most to expect from future U.S.-Chinese climate talks is the issuance of non-binding declarations, or, to put it differently, mere lip service. This already became clear upfront to Kerry’s July visit when Xi Jinping stated that China’s climate politics “must be determined by the country itself, rather than to be swayed by others.” John Kerry agreed likewise that no one should be dictated to. 

International climate politics and Sino-American climate relations need fundamental rethinking and a theory of change that adapts to the confrontational realities of the international system in capitals around the world. 

A strategy is needed to transform climate action into a matter of self-interest. A salient long-term consideration emerges in this context: The inevitable necessity for economies to decarbonize means that those leading in green tech will eventually reap relative benefits. In line with this logic, China invests heavily in renewable energy and electric vehicles. Meanwhile, the U.S., through the IRA, has also entered the competition. Both nations show their intent to dominate markets of the future. 

Regrettably, this long-term competition for shares in an eventually sustainable global market works too slowly. As the ship is sinking, the short-term fear of relative power losses through substantive climate action prevails, and economies keep on quarreling over fossil market shares. In this context, China appears to prioritize climate policy only when it doesn't jeopardize current profits, evident from their extensive implementation of coal energy. Meanwhile, the U.S. has yet to implement carbon pricing at the national level. 

Contrary to common belief, a competitive bi- or multipolar world order and its functional logic could work as a catalyst for dragging the long-term incentive for climate action into the present. It could be pivotal as a regulatory mechanism to accelerate decarbonization efforts in the international system. 

Given the existing interdependence between U.S. and Chinese markets—constrained by tariffs but sustained through global supply chains and intermediary goods—a nation that achieves a competitive lead in carbon-neutral production could use this upper hand to inflict substantial costs on its counterpart through increased carbon pricing and tariffs. This would incentivize the competing nation to decarbonize, to maintain its market share in the other country's expansive market. 

Therefore, assertive climate policies can provide the two rivals with mechanisms to push the other into taking action and incur comparatively higher costs. This approach is more straightforward to implement. Instead of seeking a diluted agreement through lengthy negotiations, competition merely necessitates one party to take the lead and apply direct economic pressure on the other to decarbonize. 

Great power competition could thus offset a virtuous cycle for the climate, prompting competing political and economic systems to drive their economies towards decarbonization in a competitive race to net zero. 

History has shown the potency and potential effectiveness of bipolar competition in the race to space between the Soviet Union and the U.S. This rivalry spurred significant investments and technological advancements, culminating in the moon landing just over a decade after launching the first dog into space. 

Moreover, the effect could be amplified if the competitors rallied their allies to establish so-called climate clubs, where CO2 prices and carbon tariffs are equally issued in all member countries. Initially, from William Nordhaus, the idea was rightfully criticized for being a further obstacle to lower-income countries, as it would sanction their carbonized infant industries. 

Yet, great power rivalry could also offer a solution to this. The hastened visits of Western leaders to global south capitals, seeking even the slightest condemnation of Russia's war in Ukraine, have highlighted how geopolitical conflict elevates the global South's leverage in international affairs. As amid competition, China and the U.S. are ever more reliant on and vie for support from the global South; there would be an incentive to establish clubs that account for technology transfer and financial support for lower-income countries and promote the significant opportunities the energy transition could present to numerous countries. 

After years of striving for strong multilateral agreements on emission cuts, international relations seem to have hit a conceptual dead end. Talking is to no harm, but discussions may breed false optimism that the following resolution might be a game-changer and thus squander political resources. It's time to pivot; both international climate politics and US-Chinese climate relations require a paradigm shift towards approaches anchored in competition and adaptive coalition-building.

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