In mid-November 2014, a U.S.-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change, which committed the two nations to advancing climate cooperation negotiations toward a final agreement in 2015, was issued following a meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting in Beijing. In the following two years, two more joint presidential statements on climate change were issued, marking a significant contribution toward the early entry into force of the Paris Agreement.
Changing Priorities at Home: Domestic Impetus for Climate Cooperation
Beijing and Washington used to take opposite views in the early days of global climate talks. While China held advanced economies to account for their historical contributions to climate problems and urged the developed world to take the lead in fulfilling reduction and mitigation obligations, the United States linked its commitment to meet quantified emission reduction targets to major developing economies’ pledge of meeting similar obligations, and later withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol on the ground that the protocol exempt countries like China and India from compliance. In the post-Kyoto period, the two countries continued to disagree with each other around the interpretation and application of the “common but differentiated responsibilities” (CBDR).
The last two decades saw significant changes in the domestic and international atmosphere for energy and climate policies in both China and the United States. Hurricane Katrina of 2005 brought U.S. public and policymakers’ attention to the devastation caused by climate threats. In 2007, the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act was approved by the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works in 2007 and the Supreme Court ruled for greenhouse gases to be regulated as pollutants. State and local governments also mobilized to promote their own green development programs and initiatives like the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative(RGGI) and the Western Climate Initiative(WCI). Barrack Obama, then the Democratic presidential nominee, put climate change on the top of his policy agenda, seeking to revive the U.S. economy and create more jobs by developing more green industries.
Notwithstanding, significant domestic obstacles still remained. With 26 coal-producing states at home, coal accounted for 23 percent of primary energy consumption across the United States in 2007 and more than half of U.S. electricity was generated through coal consumption, which meant the coal and oil industries held a powerful sway over Congress. The American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 was voted down at the Senate. After gaining control of the House in the 2010 mid-term elections, the Republican Party put even more budgetary and legislative restrictions on the Obama administration’s efforts to advance green policy.
President Obama began to take more forceful actions on climate issues after winning reelection. In signing the President’s Climate Action Plan in June 2013, he attempted to bypass Congress to advance the reform of environmental policy. In 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) launched the Clean Power Plan, laying out emission reduction targets for each states. In 2015, President Obama overruled with a presidential decree Congressional resolutions of disapproval that would have nullified the Clean Power Plan and overturned EPA’s emissions standards on new fossil fuel power plants. The president’s green policy agenda gained further traction as public awareness of climate challenge grew and cleaner and cheaper alternatives such as natural gas emerged amid the Shale Revolution,
China’s climate policy was also driven by domestic and international factors. On the domestic front, with environmental protection and sustainable development attracting more and more attention, the “Scientific Outlook on Development” and the goal of building a resource-conserving and environmental-friendly society were written into the government’s 11th Five-Year Plan. A task force, the National Leading Group on Climate Change, was created within the State Council in 2007 and the State Environmental Protection Administration was overhauled into the Ministry of Environmental Protection in 2008. A department of climate change was set up under the National Development and Reform Commission to coordinate climate policymaking. Internationally, China’s carbon emissions soared at the beginning of the new century, making it a top carbon emitter and putting Beijing in a disadvantageous position in international negotiations. These domestic and international factors conspired to move China in the direction of developing a green economy.
Like the United States, China’s green development initiatives also faced domestic challenges. Sustaining high economic growth remained a goal of overriding importance in China’s domestic and foreign policy agendas. Beijing approached climate change from an economic development perspective from the very beginning. As its National Climate Change Program released in June 2007 made clear, climate change is a development issue in essence. Even though Beijing realized the importance of economic transition early on, it was still impossible to achieve absolute reduction in a short period of time because China had been highly dependent on a coal-dominated energy mix and energy-intensive industries such as cement, steel, and petrochemicals had been what sustained its high economic growth and rapid urbanization. As a result, in international climate talks Beijing always insisted on its development interests and favored emissions intensity reduction targets rather than those for absolute reduction.
After 2011, climate and energy issues further moved up in the government’s policy agenda. For the first time, the 12th Five-Year Plan devoted a whole chapter to “green development” and what was entailed in a “resource-conserving and environment-friendly society.” It also detailed Beijing’s action plans in response to climate change, including optimizing industrial structure, increasing energy efficiency, and improving the energy mix. As China’s economic growth slowed down, overcapacity of the coal and steel industries became more salient. A series of “new normals” reduced the opportunity cost of controlling carbon emissions and made it more urgent for China to improve energy efficiency, cut outmoded production capacity, and expand the green economy. At the 18th Party Congress in late 2012, ecological conservation was elevated in China’s development blueprint as a new plank on a par with economic growth. One year later, the Third Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee of the CPC further proposed to speed up institutional building for ecological conservation and draw a red line for ecological protection.
Besides, the central government also changed the way it evaluated local officials’ performance. The rate of local economic growth was no longer the primary yardstick for measuring officials’ competence and chances of promotion. Widespread smog in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai raised strong public concern, prompting the State Council to establish a strict accountability regime, forcing local governments to cut coal consumption and improve the energy mix. All these measures created conditions for China to redouble its energy and climate efforts.
Common Interests: Accelerating Policy Coordination
Beijing and Washington preferred technology-driven mitigation solutions to any radical reduction programs that might significantly slow down their paces of economic development. As major coal consumers in search of a new equilibrium in which economic growth need not come at the expense of the environment, China and the United States share some of the most fundamental climate policy goals. The fact that China and the United States are the world’s two largest greenhouse gas emitters makes it imperative for the two to work together to address climate change. And as the world’s two largest economies in pursuit of clean energy and green economy, the two nations shared some common interests in promoting closer climate cooperation.
The most apt term to describe China-U.S. interaction in climate issues since 2008 must be “cooperative competition.” Bilaterally, the Obama administration acknowledged China’s important role in addressing climate challenges early on and engaged in practical cooperation with China in environmental and energy issues. Even before Mr. Obama took office, Beijing and Washington had signed a Ten-Year Framework for Cooperation on Energy and Environment in June 2008. In 2009 alone, prominent Democrats like Secretary of State Clinton, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern, and President Obama himself visited Beijing one after another to coordinate policy with China in the lead-up to the Copenhagen Summit. The succession of productive meetings between U.S. leaders and their Chinese counterparts led to the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding to Enhance Cooperation on Climate Change, Energy and the Environment and the creation of a China-U.S. Clean Energy Research Center.
Notwithstanding these positive developments, Beijing and Washington held competing views around the CBDR principle in multilateral climate negotiations. Whereas Beijing insisted on “two track”(Annex I/Non-Annex I dichotomy) negotiations modeled after the Kyoto climate talks, Washington advocated for a more comprehensive and integrated agreement that would impose binding targets on developing countries. Whereas Beijing adhered to differentiated responsibilities and obligations on specific issues like mitigation and reduction, transparency, and international assistance, Washington insisted on common responsibilities for all countries to the effect of diluting the CBDR principle. These stark differences impeded progress of global climate talks.
Since 2013, communication and cooperation on climate change between China and the United States picked up speed due to both countries’ domestic strategic adjustment as well as changes in the international environment. After the under-delivering Copenhagen conference, Beijing wanted to improve its international image in the follow-up climate talks. The United States gained a more advantageous position in the negotiation on the Durban Platform with the conclusion of the Doha Conference in 2012 where the two-track negotiation over the Kyoto Protocol’s second commitment period was completed. After 2013, bilateral tensions rose over a number of issues deemed by both sides as concerning their respective core interests, from the disputes in the East and South China Seas to cybersecurity to global trade rules. Leaders in Beijing and Washington shared the interest in identifying some areas of common concern where pragmatic cooperation could help stabilize bilateral ties and maintain a modicum of trust.
In this context, China and the United States worked more closely on climate change. A joint statement was issued in 2013 to launch a China-U.S. Climate Change Working Group headed by Todd Stern and Xie Zhenhua to carry out policy dialogues while advancing practical cooperation. In 2014, talks between top leaders and working-level dialogues on a number of bilateral and multilateral occasions led to the release of the Joint Announcement on Climate Change, which laid out both countries’ post-2020 action plans on climate change. China announced its intention to achieve the peaking of CO2 emissions around 2030, injecting greater confidence in the climate governance model based upon Nationally Determined Contributions. The announcement was a significant compromise as Beijing and Washington attempted to smooth over their CBDR disagreements by committing to “reaching an ambitious 2015 agreement that reflects the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in light of different national circumstances.” This phrasing was later written into the text of the Paris Agreement. Aside from the Paris Agreement, China and the United States also communicated extensively on topics such as forest and land use, carbon tax for the aviation industry, emission reduction of other greenhouse gases, and pledged joint support for hydrofluorocarbons(HFCs) emission reduction under the framework of Montreal Protocol.
With the Paris climate change conference approaching, intensive multilateral dialogues and negotiations were conducted on various major issues in 2015. In a second joint presidential statement released in late September 2015, Beijing and Washington pledged to strengthen coordination in multilateral talks to hasten the conclusion of the Paris Agreement. Six months later in March 2016, in a third joint presidential statement, the leaders of China and the United States announced their intention to sign the Paris Agreement on April 22. At the G-20 Summit in Hangzhou in September, the two countries announced that both had acquired domestic approval for the Agreement. Under the leadership of China and the United States, the Paris Agreement entered into force in less than seven months after it was opened for signature and was signed by 195 countries in total, a milestone in global climate change governance.
Huge Impact: Joint Efforts for the Common Good
China-U.S. climate cooperation not only advanced the global climate governance agenda but also brought additional benefits for both countries. From Beijing’s perspective, regular policy dialogues and practical cooperation with the United States helped China acquire key technologies, expertise, and best practices in the fields of energy conservation and emission reduction, new energy, data collection, meet its national economic development targets, and improve its capability of fulfilling international commitments. Promises made by top policymakers in dialogues with their American counterparts were fulfilled through more robust reforms of domestic environmental and energy policies.
For the United States, cooperation with China boosted the development of its new energy and green industries and consolidated its leadership role in international climate policymaking. The outcomes of global climate negotiations on contentious issues like the CBDR principle, transparency, and international funding mechanisms, generally tilted in favor of the U.S. position. On issues such as HFCs emission reduction, aviation carbon taxation, and carbon trading markets, the United States popularized its rules and practices around the world through policy dialogues with China. China-U.S. climate cooperation would have been impossible without the two sides’ efforts to acknowledge the imperative of cooperation, shelf their differences in positions and capabilities, and make necessary compromise in exploring common interests.
Lessons and Ways Ahead
First, the early conclusion and entry into force of the Paris Agreement was due to the fact that China and the United States focused on common interests and rejected the obsolete notion of zero-sum competition. Beijing and Washington understood that it would serve their common strategic interests to join hands in protecting their shared home—the earth—and working toward global sustainable development. They coordinated their policies and complemented each other’s efforts to develop green economies and strengthen energy security.
Though Beijing and Washington held different positions and even tried to pressure the other side by establishing their own negotiating alliances, the two countries managed to avoid finger-pointing and full-scale confrontation. Instead, by conducting intensive policy dialogues, they built mutual trust and kept searching for common interests, leading to the universal acceptance of the Paris Agreement.
Second, pragmatic exchanges on specific issues strengthened their bond of cooperation and mutual trust. Beginning in the first round of the China-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue in 2009, China and the United States had kick-started a number of cooperation projects on clean coal, electric vehicles, renewable energy, and so on. The China-U.S. Climate Change Working Group established in 2013 proposed key cooperative initiatives covering automobile emission reduction, smart grid, carbon capture, architectural and industrial energy efficiency, data collection, forestry, low-carbon cities, and industrial boiler energy efficiency. All these projects and initiatives included not only policy communication and coordination between government departments in charge of environment protection, energy, and transportation, but also pilot programs involving governments, enterprises, and research institutions in areas such as smart grid and carbon sequestration, as well as local initiatives launched by provincial, state, and municipal governments.
For both China and the United States, these cooperation projects were of special significance. By translating climate issues into specific projects, the United States was able to bypass legislative deadlocks in Congress and gave full play to the capabilities and advantages of the nongovernmental and business sectors as well as local and specialized institutions. By aligning climate cooperation with national and local government’s goals of energy conservation and environmental governance, China mobilized government departments that implemented climate policies and stakeholders to engage in cooperation as well as capacity building. Bilateral exchanges and communications conducted around specific programs and initiatives enabled Chinese and American officials in charge of environmental, energy, and transportation policies to increase understanding and build trust and thus facilitated consensus building between top policymakers on climate cooperation.
Third, top leaders of both China and the United States played a vital role in facilitating cooperation by demonstrating political willingness and strong leadership. In China’s top-down governance model, top leaders’ decisions were the most effective call to action for tackling pressing health and environmental threats like sulfur dioxide pollutants and smog. Especially since the 18th CPC National Congress, top-level consensus-building and policy design for ecological conservation have been driving local governments’ climate governance practices. Political commitments made by top Chinese and American decision-makers during summit meetings sometimes went beyond the compromises that diplomatic agencies from both sides had prepared to make, forcing local and provincial governments to take more forceful measures to achieve related energy and environmental goals.
Despite intensifying geopolitical and geoeconomic competitions, Chinese top decision-makers and their American counterparts managed to maintain a constructive attitude and find areas of shared interest and common concern. Sincere dialogues and pragmatic cooperation proved that in the face of pressing global challenges, it was possible for Beijing and Washington to join hands in building a new type of great power relations.
Bilateral climate cooperation began to loose momentum after Donald Trump came into office, who walked away from, rolled back, and abandoned many climate cooperative initiatives launched under the Obama administration. Worse still, political polarization has made legislation over climate, environmental, and energy issues a source of partisan acrimony. As China-U.S. relations deteriorate with each passing day, communication and cooperation on energy and environmental issues have ground to a halt. The China-U.S. Ten-Year Framework for Cooperation on Energy and Environment is yet to be renewed, and dialogue mechanisms such as the China-U.S. Climate Change Working Group have been suspended, casting a long shadow over the future of China-U.S. climate cooperation.
Despite recent major setbacks, positive factors and political incentives for strengthened China-U.S. climate cooperation remain intact. In the United States, environmental agencies, state and local governments, and NGOs are still pushing for the federal government to fulfill its international obligations. China, on the other hand, has pledged at the UN General Assembly to reach carbon neutrality before 2060, an ambitious goal that requires more vigorous efforts to enact and enforce environmental and energy laws at home and engage in global climate cooperation abroad. If China and the United States can cast aside ideological differences, rise above the zero-sum mentality, and take full advantage of their respective national capabilities, greater contribution could be made for the well-being of both countries and the world as a whole.
 Tora Skodvin and Steinar Andresen: “An Agenda for Change in U.S. Climate Policies? Presidential Ambitions and Congressional Powers,” International Environmental Agreements, Vol. 9, No. 3 (2009), pp. 263-278.
 David M. Konisky and Neal D. Woods: “Environmental Policy, Federalism, and the Obama Presidency,” Journal of Federalism, Vol. 46, No. 3 (2016), pp. 366-391.
 NDRC, China’s National Climate Change Programme (Beijing: National Development and Reform Commission, 2007), p. 2.
 Kenneth G. Lieberthal, “Challenges and Opportunities for U.S.-China Cooperation on Climate Change,” Testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, June 4, 2009, https://www.foreign.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/LieberthalTestimony090604a.pdf.
 Oran R. Young et al., “Institutionalized Governance Processes Comparing Environmental Problem Solving in China and the United States,” Global Environmental Change, Vol. 31 (March 2015), pp. 163-173.
 Office of the Press Secretary, “Remarks by President Obama and President Xi Jingping in Joint Press Conference,” White House, November 12, 2014, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2014/11/12/remarks-president-obama-and-president-xi-jinping-joint-press-conference.
 “China’s New Carbon Neutrality Pledge: What Next?” China Dialogue, September 23, 2020, https://chinadialogue.net/en/climate/chinas-new-carbon-neutrality-pledge-what-next/.