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Cooling the Heated Rhetoric

Amid intensifying strategic competition, the US and China are seeking common ground on climate change

By NewsChina Updated Jul.1

After months of mutual antagonism with US President Joe Biden largely continuing the anti-China agenda of the previous Trump administration, the US and China seem to have finally found one issue where they can work with each other.  

On April 15 and 16, US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry visited China, the first senior US official from the new administration to do so. In the joint statement issued after the visit, the US and China said they are committed to cooperating on the pressing issue of climate change.  

Biden also invited Chinese President Xi Jinping, one of 40 global leaders, to attend the US-organized Leaders Summit on Climate held virtually on April 22 and 23. During the meeting, the US announced it would adopt a new nationally determined contribution (NDC) for the US which aims to achieve a 50-52 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 compared to 2005 levels. It marked the US’ formal re-entry to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, which former president Donald Trump pulled the US out of on his first day in office.  

Biden pledged to create a carbon emission-free power sector by 2035 and achieve a net zero emission economy no later than 2050.  

In his speech at the virtual summit, Xi reiterated China’s pledge made in September 2020 that it will reach peak emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. On China’s controversial levels of coal consumption, Xi said that China will hit peak coal consumption before 2025.  

“China will strictly control coal-fired power generation projects and strictly limit the increase in coal consumption over the 14th Five-Year Plan period [2021-2025] and phase it down in the 15th Five-Year Plan period [2026-2030],” Xi said.  

Xi also said that “China welcomes the US return to the multilateral climate governance process,” and that China looks forward to working with the US to jointly advance global environmental governance.  

The virtual meeting was the first between the two leaders since Biden took office on January 20, and it sparked a round of much-needed optimism about the prospect of cooperation between the world’s two largest economies and carbon emitters.  

Source of Conflict? 
The US and China previously had close ties on climate change. During the Obama administration, the two governments launched a climate dialogue, and cooperation initiatives were established between local governments, universities and research groups.  

Those days are long gone. With bilateral ties at their worst in decades, climate issues are inevitably intertwined with the broad diplomatic relationship between the two countries. While both the US and China have been trying to emphasize the importance of cooperation, climate issues can be a source of conflict as well.  

As the Biden administration uses competition with China as a key message in promoting its policies, climate change is apparently no exception. On April 20, just two days ahead of the virtual climate summit, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken made clear that the climate issue is an integral part of a strategic competition with China that the US has to win.  

“If we don’t catch up, America will miss the chance to shape the world’s climate future in a way that reflects our interests and values, and we'll lose out on countless jobs for the American people,” Blinken said.  

Blinken also said that the Biden administration will not let other countries “get away with bad practices such as human rights abuses” even if they are making progress on curbing climate change, obviously referring to China.  

Then on April 22, almost the same day as top leaders from the two countries were holding talks in the virtual climate summit, the US Congress stepped up bipartisan efforts to counter China by pushing three bills, including the US Strategic Competition Act of 2021 and two Xinjiang-related bills.  

China was hardly likely to ignore these words and actions. The next day on April 23, in the virtual dialogue with the US Council on Foreign Relations, Wang Yi, China’s State Councilor and Foreign Minister, warned that the US has adopted the wrong approach to China.  

“To be frank, the US, in shaping its China policy, has not stepped out of the shadow of the previous administration, has not gotten over its misperception of China, and has not found the right way to engage with China,” he said. Describing climate change as “the most outstanding” area of cooperation between the two countries, Wang said that the key to the bilateral relationship is “whether the US can accept the peaceful rise of a major country with a different social system, history and culture, and in a different development stage; whether it can recognize the Chinese people’s right to pursue development and a better life.”  

Comments and moves from politicians from both sides suggest that it is unlikely that the issue of climate change will be detached from the overall strategic rivalry between the two countries.  
Leadership Role 
Besides the overall political climate surrounding the bilateral relationship, another focal point of climate cooperation with the two countries that could become a source of conflict is their respective position and responsibility in the fight against climate change.  

When Trump pulled the US out of the Paris Agreement in 2017, his major argument was that it was unfair to the US, as it allows China and other countries like India to continue to use fossil fuels while the US had to cut emissions.  

Although the Biden administration rejoined the Paris Agreement, the argument that China needs to do more remains as strong as before, if not stronger in the US. This is why Kerry met strong criticism from Republicans in the US upon his return, as China did not announce additional emissions targets.  

“The US Congress is now much more critical about China than before, and it would not accept China’s claim that it is a developing country, not a developed country,” Max Baucus, former US ambassador to China told NewsChina. “China always says that it wants to be equal with the US, then it should take equal responsibilities with the US,” Baucus added.  

Upholding the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities,” China has long argued that as its industrialization began much later than in developed countries, China and other developing countries should be allowed more time to hit peak emissions. Given the tensions between the US and China, it is unlikely that China will substantially raise emissions targets.  

The US is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in history, while China is the largest gross emitter currently, though China’s per capita emissions are far lower than that of the US. Xie Zhenhua, China’s special climate envoy, has claimed that China’s per capita emissions will top out at about 7.2 tons when they hit peak levels, considerably lower than the US’s per capita emissions of 19.9 tons when its emissions peaked between 2005 and 2007.  

For the US, Biden’s return to the Paris Agreement marks the resumption of its global leadership on climate action. While China welcomes the return of the US, it does not see the US as the sole leader in climate action, nor does it want to be lectured by the US.  

In answer to a question about a statement from the US State Department that said China “is not yet on a path that will allow the world to meet the Paris Agreement’s goal,” Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a regular press conference that the return of the US to the Paris deal is “by no means a glorious comeback but rather the student playing truant getting back to class.”  

Le Yucheng, China’s vice foreign minister, made similar comments in an interview with the Associated Press on April 18, saying that the US should redouble its efforts to make up for time lost during its absence in the past years by providing more technological and financial support to developing countries. As for China, “addressing climate change is not what others ask us to. We are doing so on our own initiative,” Le said.  

Chinese President Xi Jinping at the virtual Leaders Summit for Climate on April 22, 2021

High Stakes 
Although the cooperation on climate change appears unlikely to change the overall relationship between the US and China, it does not mean there is no room for progress, especially as the stakes go far beyond the bilateral relationship.  

In the press briefing following the meeting with his counterpart John Kerry in Shanghai, Xie Zhenhua told media that the two sides would start a working group. “We will not just talk to each other, but we will take concrete actions,” Xie said.  

Zhou Tianjun, a professor at the Institute of Atmospheric Physics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told NewsChina that despite Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, scientists from both sides have maintained close cooperation in scientific research.  

“We have maintained comprehensive cooperative relationships with major American scientific agencies on climate change at various levels,” Zhou told NewsChina.  

Kerry appeared upbeat about the prospects of US-China cooperation. In an interview after the virtual climate summit, Kerry said he was optimistic that China would raise its emission targets before the UN climate talks (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland in December.  

According to Zou Ji, CEO and president of Energy Foundation China and former deputy director-general of China’s National Center for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation, China could hit peak emissions well ahead of its current 2030 schedule.  

In an interview with news portal guancha.cn on April, Zou said that carbon emissions in 13 provinces and municipalities accounting for 43 percent of China’s total emissions have already peaked, while emissions in 10 other provinces that account for 37 percent of China’s total have flattened in recent years. As 80 percent of China’s carbon emissions have roughly peaked, it is feasible that China can achieve its goal of peaking emissions by 2025.  

In a press briefing on April 22 after the virtual climate summit, China’s Vice Foreign Minister Ma Zhaoxu told media that the country has included carbon peaking and carbon neutrality in the overall plan for ecological civilization and will make “determined efforts” to deliver on its commitment.  

Ma said that if China can deliver on its commitments by transitioning from carbon peaking to carbon neutrality in 30 years (2030- 2060), it would “achieve the world’s largest decline in carbon emissions in the shortest time in world history.”  

“To achieve that, China needs an extensive and profound systematic revolution in its economy and society,” Ma said.