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.