As the world’s two single largest greenhouse gas emitters, China and the United States once worked closely and constructively to tackle climate challenges. It was widely acknowledged that the robust cooperation between the two countries during the Obama era catalyzed the Paris agreement.
Then came Trump.
Infamous for his ignorance of climate science and the reality of global warming, Donald Trump dismantled Obama’s climate legacy soon after taking office in 2017 and put China-U.S. climate cooperation on hold. When Joe Biden was inaugurated as the 46th President of the United States in January, expectations for a renewal of the China-U.S. climate relationship piled up, as climate change is often considered a policy area where the two countries can achieve positive cooperative outcomes and maximize their common interests at a time of low trust.
Considering the climate impact and political weight of China and the United States, the goal of the Paris agreement to contain global warming can never be achieved without re-engagement by both countries. For the sake of the welfare of mankind, as well as their overall relationship, it is vital that they again work together on climate change.
Ever since Biden won the 2020 U.S. presidential election, China has been setting the stage for climate cooperation with the incoming administration. Speaking at the United Nations Climate Ambition Summit in December, President Xi Jinping announced new targets as part of China’s commitment to peak carbon emissions by 2030, along with a pledge to realize carbon neutrality by 2060.
In a recent dialogue with the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations in early February, senior Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi identified climate change as an area of “mutually beneficial cooperation” that would serve the economic and social development of the two countries and “help protect Mother Earth.” Moreover, Beijing re-appointed Xie Zhenhua, a veteran climate negotiator and China’s special representative for climate affairs, who is well-acquainted with Biden’s climate czar, John Kerry.
On the American side, Biden has set a goal of net zero economy-wide emissions by 2050. In a recent phone conversation with Xi, Biden recognized climate change as a shared challenge that faces both the United States and China. He told his counterpart that he would work with China when it benefits the American people. Needless to say, to work with China on climate change will advance the interests of the American people, as well as all other people on our planet.
Reviving China-U.S. climate cooperation will require strong leadership and clear political will. It is thus indispensable for the top leaders of both countries to play key roles in facilitating climate cooperation. Similar to what U.S. President Obama did in 2014, President Biden should do now — join hands with President Xi at the Leaders’ Climate Summit in April for another joint announcement to kick off a renewed climate partnership.
Biden and Xi need not only to highlight climate change as a featured topic in their crowded agenda of summits but should also make sure climate change is a shared priority in a wide range of international forums, including the G20 and APEC.
Building new and expanded cooperation on climate matters also calls for decisive steps to be taken by both countries to revamp preexisting channels of dialogue and communication, such as the China-U.S. Climate Change Working Group. By proposing updated initiatives covering vehicle emissions reduction, smart grids, carbon capture and storage, energy efficiency, low-carbon cities and green finance, the working group should become a key venue for sharing information on decarbonization plans and collaborating on clean energy technologies and policies.
Via this platform and also the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate, China and the United States will be able to take stock of progress achieved and challenges still unmet, and finally develop a new framework for energy and climate cooperation.
Rebooting China-U.S. climate cooperation will not be an easy job, given the poor state of bilateral relations. Over the past four years, the world has seen a mounting rivalry across the board between Washington and Beijing, and not just because of Trump. Politicians on both sides of the aisle in the U.S. Capitol have reached a consensus that they must be tough on China because of the wider domestic mood — a political concern that cannot be washed away.
It is notable that John Kerry’s idea to “compartmentalize” climate cooperation with China has invited some criticism in the U.S. Biden seems to prefer a race with China on low-carbon energy technologies and batteries to win the global championship of economic transformation.
Since the administration wants to promote the flow of capital toward climate-oriented investments and away from high-carbon investments in developing countries, the Chinese-funded coal power plants within the Belt and Road Initiative could meet with growing pressure from the United States.
In this light, renewed climate cooperation will never get off the ground unless Washington can manage the mix of competition and collaboration with Beijing, as Todd Stern warned in an article published by the Brookings Institution.
Meanwhile, the landscape of climate challenges is constantly evolving. The last four years has witnessed the relentless march of climate change, which made 2020 one of the three warmest years on record, according to the World Meteorological Organization. Undoubtedly, climate change has become a grave security threat for all of humanity. One need only take a look at the crescendo of extreme climate events around the globe, from wildfires in Australia and the Amazon, to heat waves in California, floods in central and eastern China and rapidly melting ice caps at Earth’s poles to understand that climate change is the defining crisis of our time and that it demands bold and urgent action from the international community.
If Washington and Beijing fail to avail themselves of the opportunity to resume climate cooperation, the stakes will become extraordinarily high for the entire world. Keeping this in mind, we have to get things right.