Global temperatures are rising but could they offer a chance to take some of the heat out of the relationship between China and the US, after months of verbal clashes between the two superpowers?
Hopes were high over a visit by US special envoy John Kerry to his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua for two days of climate change talks in Shanghai last week. The former secretary of state was the first senior US official to visit China since Joe Biden took office in January and his trip coincided with the 50th anniversary of ‘ping-pong diplomacy’ – the visit of the US table tennis team in April 1971 that signalled an end of two decades of estranged China-US relations.
Nevertheless, in terms of diplomatic symbolism, observers soon decoded that the welcome for Kerry lacked a little warmth. There was no red carpet or Red Flag limousine waiting for him at the airport. Instead the Chinese sent a passenger van to carry the American delegation to their hotel.
The positive spin on Kerry’s trip was that climate policy offers the two governments a chance to collaborate, putting aside their disagreements on trade, human rights, intellectual property, technology and more.
But others see global warming as another flashpoint, as each country looks for ways to advance its agenda at the expense of the other.
Kerry wanted to talk more freely, describing efforts to fight global warming as a “standalone issue”. Both sides also recognise there won’t be much progress on global warming unless the two countries that produce nearly half of the world’s emissions can work together. Yet Kerry’s trip didn’t deliver anthing more specific than a pledge that the two governments would cooperate on “concrete actions in the 2020s”. And the more pessimistic view is that climate change isn’t going to be discussed in isolation from other disagreements. The Chinese have already said as much, with Zhao Lijian, the foreign ministry spokesperson, warning in January that cooperation in climate goals “is closely linked with bilateral relations as a whole”.
Both sides also see the climate debate as a way of bolstering their claims to leadership on the global stage. The Chinese made their bid to set the agenda when they announced their carbon-neutral target for 2060 rather unexpectedly last year (see WiC513).
The idea was to cast themselves as the adult in the room at a time when Donald Trump was disavowing American climate commitments. Joe Biden then arrived in office with plans to reassert American primacy, rejoining the Paris Accord within the first hours of his presidency beginning and pledging that the US economy will be emission-free by 2050.
Keeping up the pace, Biden then invited 40 world leaders to a virtual summit this week, where he annouunced that the US would cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% by 2030, a target that more than doubles prior commitments under the Paris deal.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping gave a speech of his own at the gathering, pointing out that China was taking the lead in numerous initiatives and that it has a plan to move from carbon peak to carbon neutral in a much shorter timespan than developed nations.
There’s an argument that this kind of competition in climate goals could spill over into faster reductions in emissions. But the same background of political manoeuvring is just as likely to create a confrontational mood as a collaborative one – especially when the two governments are clashing over other issues.
Andrew Erickson and Gabriel Collins – two American academics – go further in an opinion piece in Foreign Affairs this month that refutes the view that Washington should be trying to work with Beijing. They also question China’s sincerity in fighting climate change, as evidenced by the surge in coal-fired power construction since the Paris climate agreement was signed five years ago this week. Chinese firms have added about 275 gigawatts of gross coal-fired capacity in the same period, they point out, which is more than the entire coal-fired power sector in the US.
Even in areas where the Chinese are leaders – the take-up of electric vehicles, for instance – the road leads back to coal because the cars will need to be powered up from a predominantly coal-fired grid.
One million plug-in electric cars are going to emit about the same carbon dioxide as a million gasoline-powered passenger sedans, the two academics claim.
That feeds into their wider conclusion that Washington would be foolish to make a virtue of collaborating with Beijing when the Chinese government is unwilling or unable to return the sentiment. Instead they want the US to wield environmental policy as a competitive weapon by fostering a new approach in which likeminded countries levy taxes on goods corresponding to the carbon emissions required to make them.
These nations would demand the same taxes on imports from markets without equivalent carbon pricing regimes – and there are no prizes for guessing the most conspicuous target, if China doesn’t do more to reduce its emissions in the years ahead.
The Chinese are already aware of this kind of threat, with Xi telling German and French leaders last week that environmental policy “should not become a geopolitical chip, a target for attacking other countries or an excuse for trade barriers”. He alluded to it again in his remarks at the climate summit on Thursday, with a renewed call for “multilateralism” in climate governance and a warning against “green trade barriers”.
Backers of the carbon levy idea argue that it is the most effective way of forcing the Chinese to forgo fossil fuels, rather than waiting decades for them to reach the same decision of their own volition. Of course, if this is the path that the Biden administration chooses, the chances of finding common ground with China will soon go up in smoke. And behind all the talk of cooperation between nations, climate policy is clearly being debated by both governments in more competitive geopolitical and economic terms.
There was further evidence of that in the Biden’s administration this week in remarks by Secretary of State Antony Blinken that the US is “falling behind” in the green economy. He acknowledged that China holds nearly a third of the world’s renewable energy patents and is the world’s largest producer and exporter of solar panels, wind turbines, batteries and electric vehicles. “It’s difficult to imagine the United States winning the long-term strategic competition with China if we cannot lead the renewable energy revolution,” Blinken warned.
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