Can America Trust China to Fight Climate Change?

Can America Trust China to Fight Climate Change?

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Both U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping made important pledges at the Leaders Summit on Climate in Washington in April. Biden promised that the United States would reach net-zero carbon emissions by no later than 2050; Xi reiterated China’s commitment to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060 (an ambitious target) and insisted that China would begin to cut its coal-fired power generation by 2030. These positive announcements from the leaders of the two biggest carbon polluters—together accounting for around 40 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions—were encouraging ahead of the critically important UN climate talks in Glasgow in November.

As an issue of human survival, climate change requires global coordination even in the face of geopolitical tensions. It demands exactly the kind of international leadership and solidarity that the Trump administration rejected. The Biden administration has so far sought to chart a different course from that of its predecessor, one that stresses the importance of climate diplomacy and negotiation.

China should not only grow its green economy, of course, but cut its “brown” economy—and it does need to do more to reduce its coal-fired power generation. China’s latest five-year plan should have included a stronger commitment to decarbonization. But world powers won’t win that commitment through direct confrontation on climate. Hostility has proven counterproductive in past negotiations, most notably at the UN-led Copenhagen talks in 2009, when a misreading of diplomatic protocol led to a catastrophic collapse: Western countries, including the Danish hosts, assumed that they could push China to negotiate a last-minute deal, a presumption that proved wrong and led to years of recriminations.

As Erickson and Collins rightly point out, the Chinese government is not monolithic: it is a fragmented system with many competing institutions. Turning the juggernaut of carbon-heavy growth around involves a push-and-pull between powerful lobbies at central and local levels. For example, in January, the central environmental inspection agency condemned the National Energy Administration, a body that drafts laws and regulations concerning energy development, for failing to align the coal power sector with national guidelines.

Climate change is unique among collective-action problems in foreign policy because of how the share of historical responsibility can be quantified. Developed countries—whose industrialization during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was powered mainly by fossil fuels—account for a larger share of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that is warming the planet today than developing countries. The United States and Europe alone generated almost half of all carbon dioxide emitted since 1850. China and India account for only 12 percent and three percent of the emissions during the same period, respectively.

Many of the world’s poorest and most climate-vulnerable countries face a dire situation in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The demand shock caused by lockdowns in rich countries hit many developing economies reliant on commodity exports. For many poor countries, the pandemic has been an economic crisis and a debt crisis as much as it has been a health crisis.

In forsaking cooperation with China, U.S. officials will miss an opportunity to demonstrate badly needed leadership.
Their struggles could provide a rallying point for a cleaner, greener global economic recovery. Investment in sectors shaped by the changing patterns of trade and investment in the wake of the pandemic—sectors such as clean energy, agriculture, and transportation—offers an opportunity to prioritize low-carbon, resilient, and sustainable approaches to development. Yet rich countries are already failing to meet their 2015 pledges to mobilize $100 billion annually to support climate action in the global South.

This is a critical year for the future of the UN climate convention. Five years after the signing of the Paris agreement on climate change, the pathway to keep the rising global temperature at 1.5 degrees Celsius below preindustrial levels looks ever harder to achieve. In his closing comments at the April summit, Biden asked, “Is there anything else you can think of that could create as many good jobs by the middle of the twenty-first century . . . while doing so much good?” To lead a global transition toward carbon neutrality, the United States needs to spur a race to the top in developing new green technology and creating new markets. The United States won’t get there by picking a fight with China.

SAM GEALL is Acting CEO of China Dialogue and an Associate Fellow at Chatham House.

REBECCA PETERS is Leland Foundation Association of Marshall Scholars Transatlantic Academy Fellow at Chatham House.

BYFORD TSANG is Senior Policy Adviser at the think tank E3G.

Sam Geall, Rebecca Peters, and Byford Tsang offer an idealistic exhortation for U.S.-Chinese climate cooperation. What they miss, however, is that Beijing’s quest for geopolitical leverage overrides its concern for the climate. In April, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi admitted as much, saying, “The United States cannot repeatedly challenge China’s rights and interests on issues related to Taiwan, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong while expecting China to cooperate with it on issues it cares about.”

Wang’s requirement for upfront concessions merely to preserve the possibility of future emission reductions exploits foreign naiveté, which is in abundant supply. On July 8, 48 progressive groups sent a letter to the White House and Congress calling on Washington to prioritize climate cooperation over the security threats created by China’s own actions.

Those inclined to kowtow to Beijing should first do the coal math. Although senior officials in the Chinese Communist Party talk a big game about green energy and climate diplomacy, their domestic actions are on track to lock in 100 billion additional metric tons of coal burning by 2045–60. This contradiction underscores the CCP’s paramount interest: domestic political survival, which depends on keeping the engines of industrial growth humming. That, in turn, requires a massive portion of total global coal use—nearly 55 percent in 2020.

At more than four billion metric tons per year, China’s current coal habit portends a dire climate future. According to the research firm Rhodium Group, China’s emissions of the six key greenhouse gases covered by the Kyoto Protocol—carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, and sulfur hexafluoride—already exceed the emissions of all developed countries combined. China was the only major industrial power whose emissions actually rose during the 2020 global pandemic-induced recession, as policymakers leaned on king coal to power industrial recovery.

Using data from the China Electricity Council, we estimate that replacing ten percent of China’s coal-fired power plants with nuclear energy would require more than triple the nuclear capacity it has slated to enter service by 2026. Replacing ten percent of coal with renewables could require China to install nearly as much wind capacity as it has built cumulatively to date, or more than 1.5 times as much solar capacity as it has built. Only true leverage can make Beijing pursue such a heavy lift.

Geall, Peters, and Tsang seem to take the CCP at its word and believe that outsiders will benefit by negotiating with its leadership on climate. But when foreign supplicants collide with the CCP’s self-interest, they will pay with both upfront concessions and wasted time, during which critical climate systems could be pushed beyond the point of no return. Real progress on climate change requires fundamentally shifting the CCP’s calculus by altering the economic bottom line on which its power hinges. Climate competition—and threatening carbon taxation in particular—is the only Archimedean lever powerful enough to incentivize a timely transformation.

Climate competition would curtail China’s latitude for geopolitical exploitation and empower sidelined reformers. Crucially, it could also anchor the bipartisan domestic support necessary for Washington to remain a reliable long-term climate leader. No silver bullet exists, but the cooperation that Geall, Peters, and Tsang advocate is a fanciful remedy. Competition offers the most viable pathway to preserving the atmosphere and oceans for future generations.

ANDREW S. ERICKSON is Professor of Strategy at the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute and a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies.