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Within a week of President Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20, 2021, his new climate envoy, former Secretary of State John Kerry, established two clear conditions for a renewed relationship with China on climate change. First, the U.S. wanted climate to be treated as a “standalone” issue in the relationship, untethered to disagreements on issues like the South China Sea, intellectual property, or human rights. Second, Kerry insisted that China demonstrate its willingness to do more this decade to reduce emissions. In other words, the U.S. wanted to avoid cooperating simply for the sake of cooperating — without any national or planetary dividend.
The stakes for the planet could not be greater. As the world’s two largest carbon polluters — accounting for 40% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions — China and the United States are indispensable to global efforts to combat climate change. And while President Biden’s first year featured an encouraging level of bilateral engagement on the issue, whether this translates into concrete joint action will have a pronounced effect on the course of this century.
On Kerry’s second condition, Chinese leader Xi Jinping has made four new announcements regarding near-term climate action since Biden’s election. Xi indicated that China would at least update its existing 2030 targets under the Paris Agreement with its current trajectories of action (but stopped short of headline improvements); ratified the Kigali Amendment to phase down super-polluting hydrofluorocarbons; committed to peak domestic coal consumption by 2025; and halted China’s construction of coal-fired power plants overseas through its signature Belt and Road Initiative. These announcements followed China’s groundbreaking carbon neutrality pledge issued on the eve of Biden’s election.
Washington, however, still wants to see more from Beijing — especially since President Biden has doubled down on the United States’ own near-term ambition to reduce emissions by 2030. (Even if Beijing seriously questions the durability of any American climate commitment given the country’s partisan divide, and the U.S. will likely still miss an earlier emissions target it had set for 2025 as a result of the lost time under the Trump administration.)
Kerry’s first condition, that climate action be separated from other aspects of the bilateral relationship, is even further from being met. Zhao Lijian, spokesperson for China’s ministry of foreign affairs, dismissed the prospect of such compartmentalization early on, while State Councillor Wang Yi — despite citing a desire for the two countries to work together — has warned that this cooperation cannot simply be an oasis surrounded by desert, lest it be consumed by the sand itself. Domestic politics in the two countries have only made matters more difficult on this front.
Pessimism aside, there’s been no shortage of engagement between the two countries on climate change. Kerry has visited China three times (Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman is the only other high-level official to have gone there even once) and has conducted more than 20 virtual meetings with his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua. While these meetings have not yet resulted in major announcements, they have at least enhanced trust in the bilateral relationship, allowed both sides to better understand the perspectives and expectations of the other, and strengthened the hands of those in both governments pushing for more ambitious domestic action.
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So, the key question for 2022 is this: Can this intense engagement on climate change now translate into practical cooperation? There are reasons to believe that the answer may be yes.
Beijing, for its part, has a clear appetite for it. A joint statement released by Xie and Kerry in April was notable not only for its use of the term “climate crisis” — a first for an official Chinese pronouncement — but also because it identified eight practical areas for cooperation across industry, renewable energy, agriculture, the built environment (such as houses and roads), transportation, non-CO2 gases, aviation, and maritime; and with respect to the coal, oil, and gas sectors.
This development dovetailed with the outcome of a series of policy dialogues involving both American and Chinese climate experts, which Asia Society Policy Institute President Kevin Rudd convened with Xie and former White House Chief of Staff John Podesta throughout 2020. A key outcome of these dialogues was the need to re-establish the U.S.-China Climate Change Working Group, which first met in 2013, in order to provide a new framework for both governments, as well as subnational leaders, scientists, and business leaders, to engage across these areas.
In 2022, the broader international milieu of climate action will also be more conducive to U.S.-China cooperation. Last fall’s United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, marked a shift from the process of countries setting near-term targets to countries now implementing their promises. This provides more diplomatic space for U.S.-China climate engagement to assist with that implementation, rather than for it to be seen purely through the lens of timelines and targets which characterized climate diplomacy in the leadup to COP26.
But that doesn’t mean cooperation will be easy — especially during what will likely be a tense bilateral environment in the lead-up to China’s 20th Party Congress, at which Xi will seek an unprecedented third term as leader. The Chinese government will be tempted to also maintain the current approach, which is to be open to cooperation while at the same time not wanting to isolate climate from serious disagreements in other matters.
However, Xi himself knows that being — and being seen to be — a climate leader on the world stage will remain important for his leadership, both at home and abroad. This could help strengthen the hand of those eager to see this cooperation take root. So too does the fact that former President Donald Trump’s indifferent approach to climate unintentionally narrowed the gap in terms of international perception of the two countries. Xi will also be keenly aware that while his carbon neutrality pledge for 2060 was groundbreaking, its credibility depends on now taking major steps toward achieving it. Therefore, it is crucial that China move further and faster to reduce emissions. By mid-century, China is projected to overtake the U.S. as the world’s largest historical carbon emitter, eroding any remaining claim that it should be treated any differently. What the world will look like then depends, in no small part, on action, not words, from Beijing and Washington.