Published on 28 October 2021
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Climate cooperation at COP26 must transcend icy US-China relations

A critical window for US-China climate cooperation is rapidly narrowing; as the Biden Administration finds its domestic climate agenda trapped in contentious budget negotiations, China has signalled that President Xi Jinping may not travel for COP26. Neither country can afford to pass up opportunities in Glasgow, says Timothy Arvan.

As world leaders prepare to convene for two weeks of high-stakes climate talks at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – COP26 (Conference of Parties), the urgency of scaling up global ambition on climate change mitigation, adaptation, and finance has never been greater. A recent synthesis report by the UNFCCC Secretariat on the progress of countries’ voluntary climate pledges under the Paris Agreement found that global emissions are on pace to increase 16 percent by 2030, a trajectory UN Secretary General António Guterres described as “catastrophic.”

Even if the Agreement’s 191 parties all meet their existing nationally determined contributions, warming would reach 2.7°C above pre-industrial levels by 2100; this far exceeds the aspirational goal of 1.5°C necessary to avert existential crises for climate-vulnerable island nations, guard against the loss of sensitive ecosystems, and minimise threats to human health and prosperity. New, bold commitments are needed, and all eyes are on the world’s two largest economies: the US and China. Ultimately, the fate of the planet may rest on the ability of US and Chinese leaders to disentangle climate cooperation from an ever-growing web of competing domestic priorities, bilateral grievances and disputes.

Success at COP26 would require a historic demonstration of global solidarity to resolve politically fraught negotiations on such topics as carbon market mechanisms, funding for loss and damage, and synchronising timeframes for future national targets. Positive outcomes largely depend on the willingness of powerful G20 countries to drastically accelerate their timetables for decarbonisation across economic sectors.

More narrowly, however, a realistic path to 2°C or below rests in the hands of the US and China, respectively the largest historical emitter (and top emitter per capita), and the greatest current emitter. Indeed, the US and China accounted for a staggering 43% of global emissions in 2020. Together, the two nations command unrivaled economic influence; their cooperation would have vast mobilising effects for climate ambition around the world.

And yet, President Biden has inherited a severely deteriorated US-China relationship, the consequence of an abrupt reframing of relations in terms of zero-sum competition under the Trump Administration’s  foreign policy. After four years of animus arising from, among other things, trade disputes, reciprocal sanctions on industry, crackdowns on scientific and cyber espionage, military tensions in the South China Sea, and dueling propaganda efforts to control the narrative on Covid-19, the US-China dynamic has been described as bordering on a new Cold War.

The Biden Administration has vowed to approach China “with patience” and “in lockstep” with international allies, promising to judiciously balance confrontation with compromise. Already, challenges are emerging. After the outgoing Trump State Department formally declared China’s repression of the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang to be genocide, the Biden Administration moved in concert with European allies, the UK, and Canada to sanction top Chinese officials over human rights abuses. In February, China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, countered that the US must not cross China’s “red line” regarding its governance of Xinjiang, Tibet or Hong Kong, leaving aside the additional flashpoint of Taiwan.

Even as sharp rhetoric persists on areas of sharp difference, both sides acknowledge the relationship’s importance for global peace and prosperity, and have singled out climate change as an issue of pressing concern with massive potential for mutual gains. Both China and the US are highly vulnerable to climate impacts, with aging public infrastructure, complex product supply chains, and sensitive ecosystems now under threat of collapse; extreme weather events including historic flooding in Southern China and uncontrolled wildfires in the Western US have captured public attention in recent months. Long-term assessments only underscore the rising costs of inaction for human health and economic productivity of both countries.

Climate change also poses serious challenges to American and Chinese credibility and influence around the world. Even as China’s debated status as a “developing” economy has long complicated negotiations over its climate obligations, both countries have talked big games on mitigation and finance and are now expected to deliver. Perceived abdication of leadership will surely elicit the ire of key allies and trading partners and present political challenges at home, all while a surge of climate litigation against governments and major corporations continues to build momentum.

Recognising the stakes, President Biden staked his campaign on recommitting the US to the Paris Agreement, quickly unveiling a sweeping domestic climate plan calling for economy-wide carbon neutrality by 2050, and full decarbonisation of the electricity supply by 2035. Meanwhile, China’s fourteenth Five-Year Plan also aims for carbon neutrality by 2060, and outlines approaches for greening the country’s industrial sector.

At COP26, achievement of these goals could be substantially advanced through joint efforts toward development of clean technology innovations, scale-up of green investment, and linkage of local-level initiatives. Bilateral stakeholder engagement and transparent planning could be strengthened through a revival of the Obama Administration’s US-China Climate Change Working Group.

Ultimately, effective climate action need not hinge on an elusive grand bargain resolving the many outstanding conflicts in US-China relations. Though the bilateral relationship can be rightfully decried as an “escalating strategic competition,” a demonstration of ambitious climate cooperation at COP26 is, in fact, squarely within both parties’ strategic interests. It also happens to be essential to preserve life on Earth as we know it.


Timothy Arvan

Timothy Arvan holds an M.Phil. (with Distinction) in Environmental Policy from the University of Cambridge. He is currently a student in the joint Ph.D. program between the Department of Political...

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