Florence Lo/Reuters
A giant screen in Beijing shows news footage of Chinese leader Xi Jinping attending a video summit on climate change with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, April 16, 2021.

What securing China’s cooperation on climate change may cost US

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 5 Min. )

At a two-day virtual global summit he is hosting starting Thursday, Earth Day, President Joe Biden will proclaim America’s return to a leadership role on climate change and ask greenhouse gas emitters – of which China is by far the largest – to commit to new reductions in carbon emissions.

But experts say seeking China’s cooperation on climate while confronting it on other geopolitical priorities will almost certainly make cooperation a bargaining chip.

Why We Wrote This

Can nations collide one day and work together the next? To do so is central to President Biden’s China policy. On the surface, climate change provides a chance to cooperate – though perhaps at a price.

The Chinese are “not going to significantly cooperate with the U.S. on reducing their coal dependence and coal emissions, for example, when at the same time the U.S. is accusing them of grave human rights violations in Xinjiang province,” says Derek Scissors at the American Enterprise Institute.

In a pre-summit speech Monday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned, “Climate is not a trading card; it is our future.”

But Mr. Scissors isn’t so sure: “If the problem of climate change is really, really important to us, as the Biden administration says it is, and if you really think the Chinese need to do more to address this serious global risk, then the U.S. is going to have to put some things on the table.”

President Joe Biden brought a China policy to the White House based on three C’s: compete, confront when necessary, and cooperate when it’s possible and even vital to both countries’ interests.

Now the “cooperate” element of the policy toward America’s principal global rival is about to be put to the test by two more C’s: climate change.

On Thursday, Earth Day, President Biden will open a two-day global summit where he’ll proclaim America’s return to a leadership role on climate change and at which he wants greenhouse gas emitters – of which China is by far the largest – to make new, game-changing carbon-reduction commitments.

Why We Wrote This

Can nations collide one day and work together the next? To do so is central to President Biden’s China policy. On the surface, climate change provides a chance to cooperate – though perhaps at a price.

But winning China’s cooperation with the United States on climate-related issues, even as the U.S. pursues an increasingly confrontational relationship on many other geopolitical priorities, is unlikely to come easily, many China experts say.

Moreover, some add, China will almost certainly consider its cooperation on climate as a bargaining chip for U.S. concessions on competition and confrontation, and another C: criticism.

“The Chinese are already doing things on climate change for their own advantages, but it’s a separate thing when it comes to cooperating with the United States,” says Derek Scissors, an expert in U.S.-China relations and Chinese global investment and trade policy at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington.

“They’re not going to significantly cooperate with the U.S. on reducing their coal dependence and coal emissions, for example, when at the same time the U.S. is accusing them of grave human rights violations in Xinjiang Province and IP theft,” he adds. “It’s costly for them to cooperate, so they are going to seek to offset those costs with things they want from the U.S. somewhere else.”

In the run-up to the climate summit, the Biden administration has been busy courting China by inviting Chinese leader Xi Jinping and pressing the Chinese to unveil new concrete steps to improve on their existing international commitments.

Indeed, Mr. Xi on Wednesday confirmed his attendance at the virtual summit, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin saying the Chinese leader’s acceptance reflected the country’s willingness to cooperate with the U.S. on the basis of mutual respect.

An existential threat

On the surface, U.S.-China cooperation on climate might seem to be carrying the day. Last week White House special climate envoy John Kerry had three days of conversations in China, at the conclusion of which the two powers agreed to work together to address what both sides agree is an existential threat.

We “are committed to cooperating with each other and with other countries to tackle the climate crisis, which must be addressed with the seriousness and urgency that it demands,” the world’s two biggest carbon emitters said in a statement issued Saturday.

Moreover, the U.S. and China have already committed to working together in some international arenas. For example, the two powers co-chair the working group on sustainable finance at the G-20 forum of the world’s major economies.

U.S. Embassy Seoul/AP
The U.S. special envoy for climate, John Kerry, at a round table meeting with reporters in Seoul, South Korea, April 18, 2021. During two days of talks in Shanghai in advance of the virtual summit on Earth Day, Mr. Kerry and his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua agreed that the U.S. and China would cooperate on climate change.

On Monday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken gave a pre-summit speech in which he laid out both the daunting challenges and the significant opportunities – including job creation, innovation, and development of a sustainable and more equitable economy – in addressing the climate crisis.

With his backdrop the Chesapeake Bay – which he called “the crown jewel of the world’s estuaries,” all of which he said face grave threats from climate change – Mr. Blinken said that in reasserting its global climate role, the U.S. would not hesitate to criticize countries that aren’t stepping up.

And he had another warning: “Climate is not a trading card; it is our future.”

China-Europe cooperation

Yet as good as that may sound as rhetoric, AEI’s Mr. Scissors says he’s not sure he believes it.

“If the problem of climate change is really, really important to us, as the Biden administration says it is, and if you really think the Chinese need to do more to address this serious global risk, then the U.S. is going to have to put some things on the table,” he says.

Noting that China accounts for almost half of global coal production and continues to add new coal-fired energy plants, Mr. Scissors adds that China knows its action on climate “is worth a lot” to the world, including the U.S. “Anyone who thinks the Chinese are going to trade all that away for free is not dealing in reality,” he says.

Still, there are also experts who note on the other hand that China is the global leader in green technologies – production of solar panels and electric vehicles, for example – and has deep and strengthening ties to the European Union and European countries on climate-related issues like trade.

“If you look at cooperation, China is already working very closely with the Europeans,” says Sanjay Patnaik, director of the Brookings Institution’s Center on Regulation and Markets in Washington. Citing a policy tool that Beijing unveiled last month, he adds that “China is already the largest carbon market in the world, in close cooperation with the Europeans.”

Mirroring a European Union model, China’s ambitious carbon market aims to reduce greenhouse gases by capping carbon emissions and then allowing carbon emitters like coal-fired plants to trade their allotted allowances.

On the other hand, Mr. Patnaik says President Biden could have a hard time “cooperating” with China and other major carbon emitters while it remains unclear just what U.S. climate policy is or how much cooperation the Biden administration will get from Congress to implement bold climate measures.

“Biden is in a bind. He’s telling the world America is back,” Mr. Patnaik says, “but what does that mean?”

U.S. policy adjustments

Indeed, others say the U.S. certainly has the potential to play a significant leadership role on the climate issue, including with China – but that it will take getting its own climate house in order to then act from a position of strength.

At the summit Mr. Biden reportedly is planning to announce that the U.S. is setting an ambitious new goal of cutting its emissions almost in half by 2030.

“As the U.S. steps up, it can put more pressure on others such a China and India,” says Amar Bhattacharya, a senior fellow at Brookings’ Center for Sustainable Development. He then foresees a shift in the U.S. approach “to the opportunities” presented by climate action, “including the opportunities for cooperative action.”

Still, even some Chinese experts bluntly present the potential for cooperation with the U.S. on climate in the very “trading card” context Secretary Blinken suggests the U.S. will not accept.

“China maintains an open attitude when it comes to climate cooperation and welcomes dialogue,” Zhang Monan, senior fellow at the U.S.-Europe Institute at the China Center for International Economic Exchanges, said in a Bloomberg interview this week. “However, if countries continue to pressure China or adopt confrontational and non-cooperative tactics,” she added, “then China will address this with corresponding actions.”

AEI’s Mr. Scissors says the Biden administration is consistently using tough rhetoric with China, but by and large has not yet “committed themselves to taking the truly costly actions on China.” And he says China is using the moment to “message” the U.S. that by acting on its hardened rhetoric, it’s going to prompt consequences in other areas of U.S. interest.

“What I see,” he says, “is the Chinese are thinking: ‘Maybe we can push [the U.S.] away from some of the stuff we really don’t like – and then maybe we can be cooperative on climate.’”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to What securing China’s cooperation on climate change may cost US
Read this article in
https://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Foreign-Policy/2021/0421/What-securing-China-s-cooperation-on-climate-change-may-cost-US
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today
https://www.csmonitor.com/subscribe