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Start With Climate Change

Jun 30, 2021
  • He Yafei

    Former Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs

As climate change accelerates, its perils to human survival seem to emerge from the shadows and showing itself as a clear and present danger that transcends borders, geopolitics and ideology. Inaction or non-cooperation on the threat posed by climate change could be deadly, with self-destruction of the world assured. I will make a few points to elaborate my views.

1. The United States and China, being the two biggest carbon emitters, as well as permanent members of the UN Security Council, bear special responsibility to take up the challenge and lead the global fight against climate change.

The 2014 bilateral agreement between China and the U.S. contributed a great deal to the success of Paris accord by the end of 2015. The withdrawal from that accord by Donald Trump dented global collaboration, but reentry by U.S. President Joe Biden brought a collective sigh of relief to the world.

Despite worsening bilateral relations, China and the U.S. began to talk about possible continuation on climate change, starting with the recent Shanghai meeting between their special envoys. It is safe to say that global efforts to mitigate climate change require leadership by major powers, including China, the U.S., the European Union and others as well as the collective and coordinated action of UN members.

2. Given the complex and unpredictable Sino-American relations and the U.S. entrenchment in a strategic competitive rivalry with China, there is increasing uncertainty about the durability, or even feasibility, of continuing coordination and collaboration between the two powers on climate change. Without overall improvement of the bilateral relationship, possibilities for reviving and expanding cooperation between China and the U.S. to tackle both traditional and non-traditional global challenges, such as climate change and cybersecurity, are dim.

It is obvious that any rapprochement between China and the U.S. calls for dialogue and confidence-building measures to reduce the deepening trust deficit, and climate change is obviously a good candidate for such dialogue and measures, providing a platform and serving as a catalyst for opening further dialogues to arrest the downward spiral.

It is a twin relationship, or two sides of a coin, as we view cooperation on climate change through the prism of the complex and slippery bilateral relationship between China and the U.S. In other words, success in joint efforts to fight climate change depends on overall improvement of the bilateral relationship and vice versa.

3. Assuming the U.S. and China will be successful in their cooperation on climate change, there is one important principle that must be borne in mind as the two proceed together with other countries to implement action plans — the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities as formally recognized in the Kyoto Protocol and other UN documents.

Unfortunately, it has been a bone of contention all along in the UN-sponsored climate change negotiations between developed and developing countries, because developed countries especially the U.S., have undermined this principle for many years with the untenable argument that China is no longer a developing country. It is also the case with China’s status in the World Trade Organization.

China, together with countries such as India, Brazil and South Africa, is firm on its adherence to this essential principle. Suffice it to say that it is a key guideline in global efforts on climate change both from historic and current perspectives. To be more specific, climate change must not be used as an excuse to cap or suppress the potential economic and social growth that China and other developing countries are entitled to have.

4. It is imperative that the U.S.-China cooperation on climate change be put in the context of reshaping the global governance system, as well as creating a better and more just world order, which is in tatters today.

Success or failure in cooperation by China and the U.S. on climate change will be a litmus test for the emerging new relationship between major powers that will underpin an emerging new world order and a reshaped global governance architecture.

There are three points I wish to stress in this connection:

A. The fight against climate change will be long and costly and needs technological support. Clean energy and renewable energy, as well as environmentally friendly technologies, are essential in this prolonged global effort. Therefore, tech cooperation rather than tech decoupling, as advocated by the  U.S. in its strategic competition with China, is a prerequisite for such cooperation from start to finish.

B. Climate change poses an imminent and existential threat to the world as a whole, and no country can isolate itself and be safe without putting up a fight in close ranks with other countries. The United Nations system certainly offer great hope for achieving such an objective, as years of negotiation began to bear fruit, with the Copenhagen and Paris accords as examples.

The campaign by the new U.S. administration to form groups composed of ideologically similar countries to contain China is simply wrong and destabilizing for the international system and global governance. In this sense, in promoting international alliances to tackle global challenges, the ideology-based formulation must be avoided at all cost.

C. As there are different interpretations of what constitutes true multilateralism, it is important to agree through dialogue and negotiation on the true nature of multilateralism with the UN at its core. Only by getting it right can we hope to move the COP negotiation along the correct road to achieve tangible results, one of which is to solidify the Paris accord into an international treaty with legally binding effects.

In sum, China and the U.S. are the two most significant powers of the world today and their wholehearted cooperation is essential for the success of any efforts to solve global challenges. It is time for concerted action, not squabbling and strategic competition. 

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