Will China and the US Become Climate Partners Again?

The Biden campaign’s ambitious new plan for domestic climate action might help renew collaboration between the world’s two largest greenhouse gas emitters.

Jul 30, 2020
Vice President Joe Biden reaches to shake hands with Chinese president Xi Jinping, as President Barack Obama stands nearby during arrival ceremony at the White House September 25, 2015 in Washington, D.C. Credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Vice President Joe Biden reaches to shake hands with Chinese president Xi Jinping, as President Barack Obama stands nearby during the arrival ceremony at the White House September 25, 2015 in Washington, D.C. Credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Strolling across the rolling lawns of Southern California's Sunnylands estate in 2013, President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping formed a partnership that laid the foundation for the Paris Agreement. The next year in Beijing, their joint announcement of emission reduction targets gave the rest of the world confidence that the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases were committed to climate action. 

But with President Trump's announcement that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Agreement, and a trade war between the two nations, the U.S.-China climate partnership ruptured. 

Now, some academics and environmental advocates see a flicker of hope that a new U.S. administration might help the two nations again find common ground to address climate change. 

 

So far, Biden's climate plans, including his latest, released on July 14, frame the U.S.-China relationship as one of competition rather than collaboration. But Villanova University political scientist Deborah Seligsohn said ambitious domestic climate action under a prospective Biden presidency would help to reengage China. 

Restoring cooperation between the U.S. and China will be critical to advancing international efforts to fight climate change over the next year, said Thom Woodroofe, senior advisor to the president of the Asia Society Policy Institute. A strong U.S.-China partnership could bolster climate action in both countries. This might, in turn, spur bolder action in other nations as they submit new emission reduction goals under the Paris Agreement during the coming year. However, continued turmoil between the two superpowers could undermine global efforts to limit warming. 

Rebuilding at Home  

Compared to Biden's first climate plan, released in June 2019, his new plan, under the slogan "Build Back Better," is more centered on the domestic economy and the recovery from Covid-19.  It aims to channel $2 trillion into clean energy and infrastructure through research and development funds as well as other government policies.

China, the only foreign country mentioned in the new plan, is described as a rival in the battle to dominate green industries such as electric vehicles and battery storage.

Trump, the plan states, "has allowed China to race ahead in the competition to lead the auto industry of the future." To catch up, Biden calls for government funding to bolster U.S. manufacturing of new, low-carbon materials and technologies. 

The Chinese government hasn't been shy about its support for industries it considers critical to the future; In its Made in China 2025 plan, published in 2015, it lists electric vehicles, rail infrastructure, renewable energy and nuclear power equipment as priority technologies that should receive subsidies and other state support.

The Biden plan, by laying out a clear industrial policy in support of clean energy, in some ways emulates China's approach.

"The Chinese government, along with other countries, has used state subsidies and industrial strategies to advance its interests," it says. "America must accelerate its own R&D with a focus on developing the domestic supply chain for electric vehicles."

While the new Biden plan's framing of China as a competitor seems like a departure from the cooperative approach taken by the Obama administration, the blueprint's domestic climate ambitions are critical to restoring other countries' trust in the U.S., according to Villanova's Seligsohn, who studies Chinese environmental governance and U.S.-China relations. "Having dropped out of international agreements twice now, the U.S. has a credibility problem, and we need to do something first to show that we are actually committed to the international process," she said. 

Outlining a "foreign policy for the climate" in Foreign Affairs this April, Todd Stern and John Podesta, Obama's lead climate negotiator and climate advisor respectively, also argued that "change begins at home." This would entail strong executive and legislative action on climate change as well as reestablishing U.S. leadership in climate science, they argue. 

A Confrontational Approach to China

The focus of the new plan is domestic. But Biden's 2019 climate plan and proposals from his climate task force sketched out a vision for renewed international leadership on climate change, as well. In early July, the task force, led by John Kerry and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, presented an agenda listing steps the United States could take to contribute to international climate action, such as rejoining the Paris Agreement and giving more climate aid to developing countries. 

Biden's 2019 plan touched on those items, but it also took an aggressive stance on China. It called for the country to end its financing of coal-fired power plants overseas under the Belt and Road Initiative—Xi Jinping's signature foreign policy. As of 2019, Chinese state-owned banks were responsible for financing one quarter of the coal plants under development outside its borders. However, the plan singled out China, Seligsohn said, without mentioning other major backers of coal power abroad, including U.S. allies Japan and South Korea. 

The original plan is still posted on the Biden campaign's website, signaling that its assertive stance on China remains part of the candidate's platform. A spokesperson for the Biden campaign said that the new plan builds on the original. The campaign did not respond to a request for comment on whether Biden's position on China climate policy has evolved since the 2019 plan's release. 

"I do worry, in the original climate plan, that there is a lot of blaming China and acting like the Chinese aren't doing anything on climate change," said Seligsohn, "when, in fact, over the past three and a half years, the U.S. has walked backwards as a nation."

With the U.S. presidential candidates competing to be perceived as tough on China, Biden's position may be an appeal to voters, said Li Shuo, a senior climate policy officer at Greenpeace East Asia who suggested that, if elected, Biden's stance may change.  

A New US-China Climate Partnership?

The coming months are critical for climate diplomacy. Countries still face a deadline late this year to submit new climate targets under the Paris Agreement, although the annual United Nations climate talks, to be held in Glasgow, U.K, were postponed until November 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Stern and Podesta wrote that "Officials need to be aware that a return by the United States to a position of leadership on climate change would be greeted by some skepticism on the part of the international community," after the U.S. Senate failed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 climate agreement, and Trump's intention to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement the day after this November's election. 

Leading up to the 2015 Paris Agreement, the dialogue between China and the U.S. helped ensure both countries committed to climate targets. Now the Chinese government's view may be that the onus is on the U.S., Li Shuo said. "I think that from the Chinese side there will be a sense that the U.S. hasn't really paid its own bill, and now they are coming after us with a lot of demands."

The U.S. is not on track to meet the target it set in 2015—to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by between 26 and 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025. Meanwhile China is on track to meet its Paris targets—primarily to peak its emissions and begin bringing them back down before 2030. However, the website Climate Action Tracker ranks both countries' climate actions as inadequate, with U.S. efforts rated "critically insufficient" and China's, "highly insufficient."  

Although it may be challenging to pass new U.S. climate legislation, strong executive action from the Biden administration would go a long way toward rebuilding trust, said Woodroofe, who focuses on U.S.-China climate diplomacy at the Asia Society Policy Institute and formerly served as a climate diplomat.

But, even if the U.S. reestablishes domestic climate action quickly under a new administration, the broader state of the U.S.-China relationship could still hamper renewed climate cooperation between the two superpowers. 

Given the countries' differences on human rights and trade, Li Shuo said, the path will be challenging.

"A key question is, number one, whether the two sides will concentrate on climate change and sort of put the other issues aside," Li said.

While other issues could hinder the two nations' cooperation on climate change mitigation, joint action on global warming could help bring them together, said Woodroofe.

Alongside collaboration on pandemic control, "climate is a no-brainer as an area of cooperation," he said, "and even in a likely to still be difficult bilateral relationship, it is probably the best prospect for maintaining some level of cooperation."

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