Xie Zhenhua: Converting Rivalry into Win-Win Cooperation

Jan 28 , 2021

Xie Zhenhua, Special Adviser on Climate Change Affairs, Ministry of Ecology and Environment of China. President of the Institute of Climate Change & Sustainable Development, Tsinghua University.


We welcome President Biden’s announcement on his inauguration day that the United States will return to the Paris agreement, and we look forward to U.S. leadership in the multilateral process of global climate governance. We also stand ready to restart cooperation with the United States on climate change. There are four reasons:

First, the coronavirus pandemic and climate change are the most pressing global challenges today.

The futures of all countries are interwoven, and no one is immune from the impact of these challenges. China and the United States are, respectively, the world’s largest developing country and largest developed country; they are also the largest economies and major emitters of greenhouse gases. Combined, they account for more than 40 percent of global emissions. Therefore, they need to work together and adopt long-termism while focusing on immediate issues.

So they need to strengthen cooperation on pandemic control and climate change, and partner with other countries to protect the common future of humanity. During the pandemic, I have maintained communication with my American colleagues and some organizations through dozens of dialogues to discuss the possibility of resuming climate cooperation. And I came away from some virtual meetings with a strong sense of hopeful expectations on the part of the international community.

Second, China and the United States can build on their past cooperation on climate change.

In 2020, President Xi Jinping announced China’s goal of peak carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 and achieving carbon neutrality by 2060, along with an updated version of its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution for 2030. In China, governments at the central and local levels are incorporating climate targets into their 14th Five-Year Plans and even into their medium- and long-term development visions for 2035.

In the United States, President Biden has announced his country’s return to the Paris agreement and yesterday signed a series of executive orders designed to address the climate crisis at home and abroad. In the near future, the new administration is expected to announce its INDC for 2030 and policy measures designed to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Moreover, it intends to take climate change as one of the four top priorities on its agenda.

We understand that on climate change the two countries have similar approaches, pathways and policies, and both are fine-tuning their measures and actions. It can be said that the leaders of both countries attach great importance to climate change and sustainable development, and are already moving forward in the same direction. This is the political basis for restarting China-U.S. cooperation on climate change.

Third, China and the United States need to engage in results-oriented cooperation on their goals, pathways and policy actions for INDC and ultimately carbon neutrality.

One of the main forms of cooperation is policy dialogue. The China-U.S. Climate Change Policy Dialogue, which had continued for many years, needs to be restarted, including intergovernmental dialogues, the Track 1.5 Dialogue between the governments and think tanks, and the Track 2 Dialogue between think tanks.

All things are difficult before they are easy, but we can start by engaging in dialogues to increase communication, understanding and trust, and then share our best practices to access our respective strengths and achieve results-oriented cooperation. At the same time, dialogues, exchange activities and cooperation programs between local governments, between enterprises, between research institutions and between organizations in civil society need to continue, and partnership at all levels needs to be restored and expanded to increase project cooperation.

In the past four years, intergovernmental cooperation was discontinued, but dialogue and cooperation at the community and civil society levels have never been interrupted. Therefore, it is important to strengthen the social foundation of China-U.S. climate cooperation and enhance bilateral cooperation through exchange and cooperation at the community and civil society levels.

China-U.S. climate cooperation needs to be pragmatic and extensive. As was discussed by the experts, the two countries have a basis for climate cooperation on many fronts. Those include improving energy efficiency; developing a circular economy; improving resource efficiency; developing renewable energy and green hydrogen; building smart grids and upgrading energy storage; enhancing carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) technologies; developing green and low-carbon smart transportation; producing electric and hydrogen-fueled vehicles; developing green and energy-efficient buildings and low-carbon infrastructure; building low-carbon smart cities; promoting climate-friendly agriculture; finding nature-based solutions to the protection of biodiversity and the environment; increasing carbon sinks and developing green finance and carbon markets.

In our discussions two months ago, our American colleagues suggested that both sides could cooperate in priority areas, such as zero-carbon electricity, zero-carbon transportation, zero-emission vehicles, zero-emission buildings, and zero-waste manufacturing. In fact, our two sides share the same position and need to work together on many fronts.

Fourth, carbon neutrality can be the starting point for China and the United States to remove obstacles in bilateral relations and promote cooperation on climate change.

For the time being, as a result of the strains on bilateral relations and U.S. domestic politics, many challenges stand in the way of restarting bilateral cooperation. We need to be calm, patient and rational, and we can always find the solution.

In the United States, some people are suspicious and even critical of China-U.S. climate cooperation because they fear that climate cooperation will lessen the significance of sensitive issues and that consequently their country will have to make compromises on these issues. But we believe that beating the pandemic, achieving green recovery and addressing climate change relate to the existence and development of humanity and the well-being of our future generations. Therefore, China and the U.S. need to act as responsible major countries, rather than politicizing issues that are relevant to the future of humanity.

In dealing with their divisions, they need to seek inspiration from their common understanding reached in the past on climate change, inform each other of their true intentions and respect each other’s core interests and major concerns. They also need to avoid finger-pointing and seek solutions acceptable to both sides.

In dealing with multilateral issues, it is important to accommodate both national and global interests, to maximize the convergence of interests and satisfy the widest possible range of interests. In 2021, the biggest test for China and the United States lies in their readiness to work together to ensure the success of the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP 15) and the 26th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 26) to the UNFCCC, and to ultimately prove the effectiveness of multilateralism.

In responding to climate change, any party adopting a “zero-sum game” strategy will end up in failure; only a win-win approach will lead to success.

Two months ago, I joined John Kerry (the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate), former governor of California Jerry Brown and Mr. Ban Ki-moon in the Trans-Pacific Climate Partnership Dialogue. As someone who promoted China-U.S. cooperation on climate change and who pushed for the success of negotiations on the Paris agreement, we have fond memories of the days that we spent together. In the dialogue, both Kerry and I expressed our willingness to advance climate cooperation to improve the overall China-U.S. relationship and advance multilateralism.

We have no illusions about a return to the past, but we sincerely hope that by drawing on the practices and experiences of past cooperation the two sides can steadily revive cooperation on climate change. I believe that as long as both sides engage in communication and dialogue, enhance mutual trust and seek common ground while reserving differences, they will begin to translate containment and rivalry into win-win cooperation in the realm of climate change.

Thank you.


View Xie Zhenhua's remarks in Chinese.