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China is setting climate traps for the United States

President's Special Envoy for Climate, John Kerry, who represents the United States in China this week, faces a formidable adversary: ​​a Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which is responsible for nearly a third of current global carbon emissions. China burns more coal than the rest of the world combined – urging the United States to offset its own methods of planetary poisoning. This is a major challenge for US President Joe Biden's administration to promote the Road to Glasgow, where Britain will host the 26th UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) from November 1st to 12th.

Hopes of getting China to cut emissions before COP26 are a dead end. The only sustainable solution is a US climate competition strategy that uses the threat of carbon taxation to incentivize a timely Chinese energy and policy change to protect the atmosphere and oceans for future generations. But first Kerry has to survive his China meetings.

Kerry and his team are faced with three big traps that their Chinese colleagues keep trying to interpret. The Biden government – including Kerry himself – has expressly promised not to make any concessions to Beijing in return for climate cooperation. But despite that promise, the link remains a real trap. The CPP's relentless pursuit of political influence at home and abroad invariably outweighs its concern for the climate.

President's Special Envoy for Climate, John Kerry, who represents the United States in China this week, faces a formidable adversary: ​​a Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which is responsible for nearly a third of current global carbon emissions. China burns more coal than the rest of the world combined – urging the United States to offset its own methods of planetary poisoning. This is a major challenge for US President Joe Biden's administration to promote the Road to Glasgow, where Britain will host the 26th UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) from November 1st to 12th.

Hopes of getting China to cut emissions before COP26 are a dead end. The only sustainable solution is a US climate competition strategy that uses the threat of carbon taxation to incentivize a timely Chinese energy and policy change to protect the atmosphere and oceans for future generations. But first Kerry has to survive his China meetings.

Kerry and his team are faced with three big traps that their Chinese colleagues keep trying to interpret. The Biden government – including Kerry himself – has expressly promised not to make any concessions to Beijing in return for climate cooperation. But despite that promise, the link remains a real trap. The CPP's relentless pursuit of political influence at home and abroad invariably outweighs its concern for the climate.

The leading emitter, China, continues to urge that its political priorities be linked to other countries' climate priorities. And progressive groups keep pushing the government to dance with the devil and accept this Faustian bargain. Make no mistake, however: when foreign petitioners clash with the CCP's self-interest, they pay with both admission and waste of time as critical climate systems can be pushed past the point of no return.

And in China itself, there are few opportunities for internal accountability because the CCP suppresses harsh disagreements about the environment and climate. It will not even accept or publish the professional assessments of its own environmental officers in important cases. Case in point: former China Central Television journalist Chai Jing, known as "China's Rachel Carson". Shortly after she was praised by China's Environment Minister Chen Jining, her 2015 documentary Under the Dome was abruptly censored – along with her personal communications and even Chen's own discussion of her. Silencing China's Silent Spring-inspired movement before it can even spark a much-needed discussion says louder than words. Additionally, coverage of the Chinese state media following major Chinese weather disasters, even after the devastating Henan floods, avoided mentioning climate change, let alone acknowledging that China's own emissions could be a factor influencing it. All the more so, Beijing's so-called progressive climate sweet talk is only for naive ears.

Two other major traps threaten the United States on the way to Glasgow's conference. One gets distracted. Beijing loves to talk about dialogue, but has not come close to making meaningful climate commitments – which the CPP will definitely blatantly violate if it finds them uncomfortable. The CCP has a long track record of breaking even the most binding promises. The many examples include the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong, which was registered with the United Nations as an international treaty, and the assurance given by Chinese President Xi Jinping at a public press conference with the then US government. President Barack Obama in 2015 that China would not militarize key contested areas in the South China Sea – a pledge that the People's Liberation Army's own actions immediately invalidated, even when Chinese Premier Li Keqiang called for "dialogue and consultation". And especially in the area of ​​climate change, China has repeatedly fallen behind and has not consistently adhered to important commitments that it entered into when it ratified the Montreal Protocol 30 years ago in 1991.

In strict Leninist fashion, the CCP consistently places itself before everything else, even the future of the planet. That doesn't mean it's always insincere to talk about the environment. China's leaders are aware of the political and health costs of heavy domestic pollution and the dangers posed by increasingly frequent natural disasters – especially for the vulnerable coastline. But the first priority will always be the party's short-term survival. Future global goods usually come last.

Another danger is one-sided climate victims, which China does not reciprocate. Beijing wants to negotiate a costly toll booth on the way to Glasgow by asking the US – and Europe – at a disproportionate cost. Better still, it prefers its major economic and strategic competitors to be pushing decarbonization at great expense, both to make it less competitive and to advance best practices through trial and error in order for China to pursue its preferred "selfish superpower" path. to the "second" free rider can pursue the -Mover "advantage.

Between 2009 and 2019, China emits almost twice as much cumulative carbon dioxide as the United States – a gap that is likely to widen in the years to come. Beijing around 1979 would have had reasonable moral capital to argue that Washington should cut emissions first. But now China has clearly reached a level where the sheer scale of its emissions overwhelms arguments about emissions intensity and treating the world's second largest economy as a less developed country for climatic reasons. China's carbon dioxide emissions are now at least twice that of the United States: in 10 years it will be emitting what the United States would in 20 to 25 years. And even its per capita carbon dioxide emissions already exceed those of major G8 economies like Italy and the UK.

Kerry and his team should remember that China's vague promise to reach maximum coal consumption by 2030 is far from being reciprocal. In order to even come close to reaching a level of commitment that corresponds to the really ambitious plans of the Biden government, China would have to make a credible commitment – among other things – to achieve a carbon-free electricity system by 2035 or 2040. Such an offer doesn't even appear on the table, regardless of how credible one might be in practice.

Talking is fine in theory, but to be effective in reality Washington needs to come from a position of strength and influence. Currently, Chinese officials are refusing to attribute such leverage to Kerry, Biden, or any other U.S. counterpart. That can and must change for the better. As we explained in our foreign affairs article and report for Rice University's Baker Institute, the United States must now pursue climate competition to get that leverage.

This approach is powerful and positive. Washington's strength is greatest when shared with others for the common good. The US-led climate coalition should begin with the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) industrial democracies and smaller coastal states like the Pacific Islands, which are often the first (and worst) hit by climate change. There is enough room for all genuinely cooperative partners to play a positive role. These climate allies should impose domestic CO2 taxes in coordination with one another, which are measured against a negotiated standard. Based on the OECD members alone, this carbon coalition would form the largest economic bloc in the world and include China's most important export markets.

Third, the United States does not have to make substantial climate-related concessions on non-climatic issues such as Indo-Pacific security and human rights. Kerry and colleagues have promised this will not happen, but US allies and partners clearly remain concerned that this will happen. And CCP officials apparently believe that they can force such an outcome. As Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said on April 23, "The United States cannot repeatedly question China's rights and interests in matters related to Taiwan, Xinjiang and Hong Kong, while expecting China on matters that are important to it , cooperate with China. ”Negotiation 101 and the school of hard blows both teach that appearing to want more than the other as an“ ardent admirer ”creates weakness and vulnerability. The Biden government has failed to dispel this notion. That too has to change.

Ultimately, the United States must completely avoid making climate-related agreements that it would honor, based on climate-related promises that China could potentially break.

By the end of Kerry's visit, it should be overwhelmingly clear that Beijing is trying to take Washington away. This will be the time for a long overdue correction. Kerry can honestly state that he has done everything in his power to try to work with his immediate counterpart – Special Envoy on the Climate, Xie Zhenhua – and other Chinese officials, and that he has all present mutually productive avenues has exhausted.

What Kerry needs to do ahead of COP26 is to focus his focus on building a coalition of large industrialized democracies, vulnerable coastal states, and other responsible partners to compete with China and impose carbon taxes on its coal-intensive products. This is the only way to get the CCP to change its climate-destroying ways for the good of all and get it to negotiate in good faith one day and get real results.

Real climate-friendly progress requires a profound change in the CCP's rationale, actually changing the bottom line on which its power depends. Climate competition – especially the exploitation of the threat posed by CO2 taxation – is the only Archimedean lever that is strong enough to create incentives for a timely transformation. This paradigm shift approach would limit China's scope for exploitative geopolitical maneuvers and strengthen its side reformers and environmentalists.

Worldwide, the climate competition supports a cross-coalition "race to the top" for climate-friendly measures, whereby the proposal for a CO2 border tax of the European Union is an existing example and US energy and CO2 storage technologies are a promising way into the future. Crucially, climate competition could also anchor the bipartisan internal support necessary to keep Washington as the reliable long-term climate leader and partner of choice. After all, it offers China its own access ramps so that it can campaign more decisively at home and abroad for climate change – and benefit accordingly.

There is no silver bullet, but climate competition offers the most viable means to put China on a much better path than it is currently committed to, and to preserve the planet for future generations. This is a legacy that Kerry and the government he represents should pursue for the benefit of all.

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