If there is an accepted truth in reporting and foreign policy analysis of climate change, the United States and China must "work together". According to The Associated Press, "it is next to impossible to avoid worst climate change if these countries don't work together". Todd Stern, President Barack Obama's climate envoy, wrote in September 2020 that if Joe Biden wins the November elections, it will be important to work effectively with China on climate change again. Former California Governor Jerry Brown said that "Biden's priority should be to work with China on climate change." However, it is not clear whether this is actually the case. Competition can be a stronger force than cooperation when it comes to actually saving the planet.
To make global efforts on climate disruption successful, the United States and China, the world's largest emitters, need to cut domestic emissions and help and urge other countries to do the same. However, both countries have the capacity, money and technology to rely on the other.
It's easy to understand why US-China climate cooperation is such a popular idea: It led to the joint climate change announcement by Obama and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in 2014, which paved the way for the Paris Agreement in 2015. Back then it was the two presidents who could protect each other domestically by making their commitments known together.
But today, the domestic political dynamics in China are completely different as assertiveness, nationalism, and fears that the United States are trying to suppress China's rise grows. Xi wanted to be very clearly one step ahead of the new US government with its goal of CO2 neutrality and did not want to make the announcement together with the European Union, although talks about climate change between China and the EU took place shortly before the declaration.
In the current climate, it would be poisonous for Xi to be viewed as a compromise with the United States. Last week, during the visit to Shanghai, John Kerry, Biden's envoy on the climate, launched a high-level appeal between Xi and two European heads of state, Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, to take all preventive steps that would otherwise be possible publish was seen as a result of the visit.
Many in the United States understandably would like to see the country as a leader who unites others in the fight against climate change. However, Donald Trump's presidency has brought home for the rest of the world that any unity that has been built around the United States will be undone when the next Republican president takes office, unless the party's position is on miraculously reversed. This does not mean that the United States has no part in the global effort – but it is very different from the attitude of global leadership to which it once sought. As the United States and China clash politically and seek support for their respective camps, the competition for technological, political, and business leadership in relation to the climate can indeed prove to be a powerful incentive.
Xi has made low-carbon development a strategic priority for China. He has very good reasons to act: Food security, water resources and the regional security environment, all important strategic issues, would be threatened by the out-of-control climate change. And a China that clings to a nineteenth-century coal-dependent industrial system while the rest of the world shifts to low-carbon energy, industry, and transportation hardly fits Xi's vision of China as a leading technological power.
While the decision to set an unexpectedly ambitious goal for carbon neutrality was likely motivated by national targets, international politics must have played a role too, particularly with regard to timing. Last year, when the United States was likely to elect a president with a strong climate platform, Xi may have been concerned about falling behind on this issue and being singled out for pressure and possible retaliation with carbon tariffs on imports by the United States and the EU and their allies, so he wanted to go ahead by announcing the goal. This is an example of how more confrontational international relationships can foster climate action.
As part of the drive to control key low-carbon technologies and businesses, China will likely seek to increase funding, technology exports, and cooperation with third countries to spread its standards for smart grid infrastructure, EV charging, and engineering more about other markets. These efforts would lead China to use its influence to encourage other countries to be more ambitious about clean energy.
The best that the United States can do to encourage China is to take climate action and build world-leading low-carbon industries and businesses at home, including stimulating and providing a clean alternative to China's fossil belt and road initiative in developing countries . This, of course, is primarily what the United States must do to contribute to the global effort, but it would also spur China to be more ambitious.
If the United States and China can coordinate how best to use the two countries' climate commitments to drive the international process forward, as they did before Paris, then that is great. But here, too, every country that uses its bilateral influence is far more important.
Of course, if China and the United States could agree to exclude fossil fuel financing and compete in financing clean energy in financing energy and infrastructure in developing countries, that would be an important step. China has already promised to cap funding for high-carbon projects in 2015 but has shown little sign of it.
The willingness to be the financier of last resort for dirty projects gives China bilateral deals that it is unlikely to want to give up. However, countries like Vietnam, Indonesia and Bangladesh – main beneficiaries of international funding for coal-fired power plants – have struck the right balance between Japan, China and South Korea to avoid being entirely dependent on one country. If other financiers step down, they will be much more cautious about pushing a large coal-fired program. On the other hand, the United States and other developed countries must drastically increase funding for clean energy to ensure that there is a real alternative.
A more confrontational geopolitics has also opened the door to marginal carbon tariffs and other trade measures against countries trying to gain an unfair advantage by easing climate policies. These measures promise to strengthen the international climate framework.
Effective monitoring and enforcement of obligations is almost impossible with an U.N. process. Establishing mechanisms to track progress and sanction delays rests with countries that advocate climate action – through their own laws and powers. A mechanism that penalizes climate retarders on condition that they do less than the United States would create an interesting dynamic. If future US administrations cut domestic climate policies, they would automatically remove the World Trade Organization justification for marginal carbon tariffs that protect US industries and jobs from unfair competition.
Ultimately, the whole question arises: "Are friendly or competitive relationships between countries better for climate action?" is not very productive in the abstract. It is much more helpful to ask, "Given international relations, what is the best way to advance climate action?" That means today that the climate community must make a rigorous assessment of how effective climate policies and measures are in a world that is more competitive and confrontational than collaborative.