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Reconciling US-China Climate Change Cooperation

On his first day in office, President Biden began the process of rejoining the Paris Agreement – a crucial initial step that signaled to the rest of the world the United State’s renewed commitment to combating climate change. However, the road to long-lasting climate transformation remains an uphill battle.  Domestic policies and targets to reduce emissions will not be sufficient on their own; only successful global cooperation will translate to progress towards reversing climate change. A  significant shift is needed in US foreign relations in order for such cooperation to be possible. China is a crucial stakeholder in global climate change cooperation. Together, the US and China hold the potential to influence other countries and create results. The two countries are the world’s largest emitters as well as  the world’s largest economies. Without ambitious steps from both, it will be difficult for the Paris Agreement to be impactful. The Biden administration’s approach to relations with China during its first 90 days will set the course for climate change policy over the next four years and for many years to come. 

John Kerry, a veteran politician and diplomat, has been named the United States Special Presidential Envoy for Climate.  Kerry has set ambitious goals for the country, but he faces the arduous task of rekindling China-US climate change relations, which have deteriorated over the past four years. Historically, bilateral cooperation between the two countries on climate change has taken various forms including high-level dialogues, multilateral commitments, trade and investment opportunities, joint research and development efforts, and industry collaborations.

Throughout the Obama administration, joint climate action made up a significant part of US-China relations. Together, the two countries paved the way for the negotiations that led to  the Paris Agreement. However, during the Trump administration, policy regarding climate change took a 180. The Trump administration discontinued the US-China Ten-Year Framework for Cooperation on Energy and the Environment, terminated the Climate Change Working Group, and no new studies came out of the US-China Clean Energy Research Center. Upon the Trump administration’s decisions to withdraw from the Paris Agreement in 2016, China began to engage actively with other global powers and explored partnerships with the European Union as well as countries in the Global South. For example, in November of that year, French president Macron and President Xi Jinping of China called for biodiversity conservation together. 

Considering such history, it is imperative for Kerry to look toward forging relationships with other countries to signal to China the country’s recommitment to playing an active role in forming climate change policy. Such relationships may include a bilateral United States-Mexico trade agreement to persuade Mexico to open up a doorway for American investment in clean energy products. Alternatively, Kerry may be considering encouraging private US investment in India to help in the  transition away from coal and towards renewables. Another tactic could be channeling US development aid towards the same countries China is working with in the global South. The aid would assist countries in pivoting towards a green economy. Moreover, the Biden administration should aim to rekindle the traditional climate alliance with Canada, Mexico, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. Additionally, new partnerships should be forged with major international influences such as India, Brazil, South Africa, and Indonesia. A coalition formed outside of, but in support of, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change could build necessary political support and morale. 

Once such actions have been taken, it will be crucial for the US to build trust  with China. A simple first step would be to restore some of the bilateral cooperative mechanisms held between the two countries under the Obama administration. Once such communication channels have been reestablished, two promising areas for cooperation are supporting subnational leaders’ progress in both countries and technology innovation and investments. A shared commitment between the two countries would be enhanced through the inclusion of a science-based path toward carbon neutrality including implementation across the sectors of transportation, power, construction, industry, and the management of natural lands. 

Then there is the question of whether the Biden administration will make concessions to China in exchange for progress on climate issues. Relations between the two countries have been tense for a number of reasons. Namely, the US wants China to stop incarcerating millions of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang camps, to cease intellectual property theft of American businesses, and to stop harassing US allies in regional waters. Kerry has made it clear that the US will not weaken its opposition to  any of these issues in exchange for US-China climate change cooperation. In his words:  “Obviously we have serious differences with China. Those issues will never be traded for anything that has to do with climate. That’s not going to happen.”

Despite such potential roadblocks, China has shown strong promise that it will uphold its commitments to combating climate change. In September of 2020, President Jinping said that Beijing was aiming to be carbon neutral by 2060. President Jinping has also shown an indication that he is willing to re-engage with the US in conversations regarding climate change. China has selected Xie Zhenhua to serve as special climate envoy. Zhenhua previously served as China’s top representative for climate negotiations from 2007 to 2018. During this time, he oversaw relations between the US and China on climate change commitments. Zhenhua’s return is a positive signal as he is familiar with Kerry.  

While the Biden Administration will seek to compete with China on a range  of issues, it is clear that Washington will also look to cooperate with China on climate change. It is the hope of many that together the two countries will be able to mobilize the international community and implement  substantial changes over the course of the next few years. The efficiency with which we are able to combat climate change relies on a successful relationship between the two countries. The way the Biden administration approaches relations with China during its first 90 days will set the course for climate change policy over the next four years. 

Graphic: Jingyu Feng