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CvT: Opportunities and Challenges to Climate Change Cooperation in the US-China Relationship

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While within the US-China relationship there is a heavy focus on competition, there are also potential areas of mutually beneficial cooperation. Addressing climate change is perhaps the most pressing of these areas, as well as one that offers the most hope for the bilateral relationship and the global environment. Climate change is arguably the most devastating global crisis currently unfolding, and the world is increasingly feeling its impact. Around the world, scientists are observing diminishing glaciers, rising sea levels, increasingly dramatic and unusual weather patterns, and warmer temperatures; these changes are very likely the cause of human activity. 

The US and China are both major contributors to environmental degradation, and as such, should both play an impactful role in shaping the solutions to this international crisis. In 2019, China was responsible for 27 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and the US contributed 13 percent. Per capita, the US is the largest contributor to carbon emissions, and has been for 150 years. Cooperation between the two countries is vital for widespread, meaningful change. However, opportunities for collaboration on climate change have been stifled over the last four years due to the Trump administration’s lack of focus on environmental protection and international governance. In 2017, President Trump pulled the US out of the Paris Climate Agreement, an international treaty on climate change aiming to limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. Trump also discontinued the US-China Ten-Year Framework for Cooperation on Energy and the Environment as well as the US-China Climate Change Working Group.

New era of cooperation?

The inauguration of President Biden brings renewed optimism to the fight against climate change, as well as new opportunities for cooperation. During their presidential campaign, the Biden-Harris platform included ambitious goals such as achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, setting carbon adjustment fees or quotas on carbon-intensive goods, accelerating the deployment of electric vehicles, conditioning international trade agreements on other countries’ commitments to the Paris Climate Agreement, and much more. These goals demonstrate the new administration’s interest in guiding the US to a leadership role in climate change efforts. Further, the platform discussed holding China accountable for maintaining high environmental standards for its infrastructure projects, especially those occurring abroad as part of its Belt and Road Initiative, and halting China’s continued investment into the coal industry. Already, one of Biden’s first moves as president has been to recommit the US to the Paris Climate Agreement, signaling to all its commitment to making sustainability a priority.

In the past, Chinese officials have stated that tackling climate change is a task for industrialized countries, and that China should not have to bear the responsibility of sacrificing growth before it has achieved the same economic standards. However, China has become more involved in environmental efforts under President Xi Jinping, who has stated a desire for China to become an “ecological civilization.” When the Trump administration withdrew from its climate change responsibilities, China stepped up and began to seek new partnerships and call for global cooperation on climate change. In addition, China is the leader in the development of solar and wind power and the largest consumer of electric vehicles. In September of 2020, Xi announced China’s goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2060.

Potential areas of cooperation

Between China’s stated green goals and a Biden administration on track to renew and expand the US’s commitment to combating climate change, the bilateral relationship is poised to make great progress on the environment. The two countries should seek out new opportunities to collaborate, perhaps by building a clean energy framework, joining forces on initiatives geared towards carbon neutrality, or working together to develop new sustainable energy technologies. In addition, both countries should take advantage of and expand existing structures and forums for climate change work and bilateral cooperation. The Paris Climate Agreement is a good example of a place the two countries can work together to lead the world towards the goal of narrowing the globe’s warming to under 2 degrees Celsius. Some experts are hopeful that bilateral cooperation on climate change may be a healing step in the relationship. If the US and China can build enough trust to enable meaningful cooperation on climate technology and R&D, that trust may carry over to other areas of the relationship in constructive ways.

Potential obstacles

While the rhetoric and stated goals of both the US and China provide a glimmer of hope for positive change, there are many obstacles to success. First, China’s pledge to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060 has come with scant details. So far, China has not explained how it intends to reach this goal, nor how this goal is compatible with its growing coal industry. China consumes more coal than the rest of the word combined, and is still actively pursuing coal projects domestically and abroad. Of great importance to this goal is China’s 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025), which will be released this year and is expected to detail its plans for becoming an “ecological civilization.” 

The US is also a country divided in its views and opinions on climate change, and that may present challenges moving forward. Partisan disagreement domestically could very well prevent effective environmental action and bilateral cooperation from moving forward. And of course, the US and China have a competitive and at times strained relationship, which makes any attempt at cooperation a fragile situation. Still, it is in both countries’ best interests to find joint solutions to climate change, meet the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement, and invest in a more sustainable future together.

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